How a VPN has become a tool in protecting human rights

Activists, journalists, human rights and environmental defenders around the world are increasingly dependent on digital technologies for communications, networking and campaigning. Support for human rights causes is growing global – but so do the threats to human rights defenders and journalists. Oppressive governments around the world try to silence human rights defenders and journalists, establish surveillance over their activities, use their private communication data to detain and even jail those who dare to voice a dissenting opinion.

Human rights in the digital world

According to Committee to Protect Journalists, 88 journalists and media workers were killed in 2018 in the line of duty: on assignment, in crossfire, in terrorist attacks and by murder. While most investigative journalists work under their own name, others, especially if they live in countries at risk, choose to write under a pen name and protect their identity. In this case, digital security is necessary not just to protect their sources, but to safeguard private information of the journalist who otherwise may become target of an attack.

But the responsibility for human rights abuses lies not only with the repressive governments themselves, but also with private companies that supply the software and hardware that facilitates surveillance, arrests and persecution of journalists and human rights defenders. One of the most high-profile assassinations of 2018, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was allegedly facilitated by software supplier NSO group who helped Saudi authorities establish surveillance of his communications. Staff members of the human rights organisation Amnesty International have also been targeted by NSO group software with an attempt to gain access to their private communications.

How to protect your rights and freedoms online

Governments that can acquire advanced surveillance technology may seem like a tough enemy to face. But in fact, there are many steps every person can take to ensure their freedom of expression, privacy and physical safety.

VPN service is one of the options every human rights organisation and individual activist must consider in order to keep their internal and external communications private and their network secure. Normally, each VPN provider has either privacy or security focus, but some of them manage to offer both at a high standard. TorGuard maintains no-logs policy, as all privacy-focused VPN providers should, as well as offers features to bypass Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), which ensures that your traffic will not be blocked or censored. While TorGuard seems like a perfectly suitable and affordable VPN for dissenting voices that want to be heard in China or Iran, this VPN provider is based on US soil and therefore finds itself under US jurisdiction – despite the promised no-logging policy, it is likely that some metadata is being collected when you use TorGuard, and can be requested by US authorities under judicial order. That is, if you are an activist planning to seriously piss off the US government, you may want to look into another VPN provider (based in Switzerland, for example).

Freedoms on the dark web

To understand how the dark web protects your human rights, it is necessary to understand the core difference between the ‘clearweb’, the deep web and the dark web. The clearweb (also known as ’surface web’) is part of the web that can be indexed by search engines. It is, therefore, easily discoverable by anyone. The deep web, on the other hand, cannot be indexed by search engines: for example, databases contained on some websites can only be discovered through website search, but through open search engine. The dark web, a portion of the deep web, can only be accessed through Tor Browser, and its websites often require individual access credentials.

The dark web is one of the places where dissenting voices can speak freely, anonymously and without fear of getting censored or persecuted. This was one of the ideas behind the creation of Tor Browser – before it turned into a gateway to illicit dark web marketplaces and disturbing content. In fact, the onion browser still serves its purpose in countries where people have to bypass censorship, access blocked social media in emergencies and keep their browsing habits discreet. The dark web, accessible through Tor, is organised in such way that it cannot be indexed by search engines, and its hidden websites often require access credentials. Anonymity of Tor browsing represents the right to privacy as a basic human right, and the dark web offers protection from tracking, state surveillance, and censorship sought by journalists and dissidents around the world.

Same can be said about the role of VPN in providing secure connection and privacy to those whose communications might be under surveillance. While some countries offer more privacy protection in law and in practice, others do not. Privacy is supposed to be one of the fundamental human rights, but how is it adapting to the digital age where ISPs may be routinely obligated to collect and retain user data, and retroactively hand it over to the law enforcement?

Today, the dark web is notoriously known for dissemination of disturbing and illegal content, for illicit marketplaces offering drugs and weapons, and for hosting websites of criminal nature. But the dark web played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring, and in Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, and it is being used by many journalists and human rights activities who have to protect themselves from state censorship and intrusion of privacy.