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Internet privacy and censorship in Ukraine - How to stay safe and secure

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Ukraine is a country with a population comprising 44.8 million people. However, internet access rates sit at 52.5% – meaning that only half of Ukraine's people have an active internet connection.

This is unsurprising considering Ukraine's ranking as the second poorest country in the EU (with poverty rates of 60%). Poverty rates have been perpetuated by the nation's persistent exposure to war and conflict since 2013, which have kept the average income down at just $3,560 per year.

In Ukraine, censorship levels are high, and the media is widely considered to be under the influence of the government. In fact, bloggers and social media users are routinely arrested and prosecuted for criticizing the government or sharing content deemed illegal or immoral by the constitution.

In addition, attacks against journalists, activists, and minority groups happen regularly and largely go unpunished. Under such circumstances, the police and military are free to pursue violence and brutality without retribution.

Political Overview

Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. At that time, the nation prepared a new constitution, adopted a multi-party system, and adopted legislative assurances of civil and political rights.

Nowadays, the nation is officially considered a semi-presidential representative democratic republic with a multi-party system. However, in practice, politics in the nation remain fractured and weak – leading to a high degree of military intervention. The politics of Ukraine are often described as overly centralized, an environment created by both its Soviet history and the fear caused by separatism.

In 2014, protests now known as the Ukrainian Revolution led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Since then, the country has suffered from ongoing military conflicts primarily as a reaction to ongoing confrontations with Russia in annexed Crimea. In 2014, Crimea was invaded by Russian forces and has been occupied ever since. The Ukrainian government funds separatist groups which seek to counter Russian control on the region.

Corruption is rampant, and the nation has been characterized as a hybrid regime by the British Economist Intelligence Unit. In such an environment, elections are rigged by the government and there is a lack of due process and the rule of law.

Throughout the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, both sides have ignored the 2015 Minsk Agreements and continued to endanger the lives of citizens with complete impunity. This includes acts of torture and the arbitrary, unacknowledged imprisonment of individuals on both sides. According to the UN, over 4,000 civilians have died in the conflicts since 2014.

This ongoing conflict has turned into full-scale war as of February 2022, after Russia recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics in the Donbas region, and subsequently invaded Ukraine. Pro-separatist forces and Russian soldiers in the east now clash against Ukrainian government forces, as well as foreign volunteers.

Russia has bombed civilian areas and civil infrastructure throughout Ukraine, ranging from hospitals to power stations, with refugees flooding into the surrounding countries as the war spreads. Additionally, cyber attacks on Ukrainian government officials have been observed by Microsoft, which seem to trace back to Russia. It is increasingly likely that more Ukrainians will be caught in the crossfire, both online and off.

How to protect yourself in Ukraine

While we can't offer advice on the keeping safe on physical side of the crisis, our online privacy guide features best-practice advice on keeping your internet footprint to a minimum, which may make all the difference.

 

Censorship

Ukraine is subjected to immense levels of media censorship and propaganda. In 2018, rights groups reported over 50 attacks on activists and human rights supporters, as well as severe assaults on members of the minority Roma population.

In Donbas, citizens are exposed to high levels of Russian propaganda, and in separatist-controlled areas (as well as in and around Crimea) it is dangerous to express dissenting political opinions. Journalists and activists often disappear entirely, and there are numerous reports of violence and torture on both sides of the conflict.

Having said that,there is a high level of pluralism and criticism of the government within the media. However, media outlets controlled by business magnates often have extremely biased political opinions.

In 2018, laws were passed that outlawed a number of Russian media outlets in the country. In addition, 200 Russian websites and online services became restricted throughout Ukraine. This includes social media platforms VK, Yandex, and other popular Russian websites. For Ukraine citizens (who consider themselves ethnic Russians), these blocks necessitate the use of a VPN to access important Russian language content and news.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) closed down 10 additional websites for inciting hate and spreading anti-Ukrainian propaganda. Police working on behalf of the Security Service of Ukraine also raided the offices of Strana and Vesti – two Ukrainian online news publications that are pro-Russian.

Altogether, in 2018, the independent Institute of Mass Information logged 201 separate violations to freedom of the press. During that time, journalists continued to face violence and intimidation. In September, a court injunction granted authorities access to 17 months' worth of a journalist's private messages and location data.

On a more positive note, the availability of foreign news websites – and access to Twitter and Facebook – allow for a relatively high amount of individual opinions online, and citizens enjoy freedom of expression online. However, it is also believed that violence and intimidation play a large part in ensuring there is a large amount of self-censorship. Thus, online freedom of expression may be somewhat exaggerated in practice.

In addition, paid commentators are known to color the online landscape by injecting a lot of fake pro-Russian content and opinions.

Surveillance

A lot of surveillance in Ukraine is thought to occur at the hands of the Russian government. For example, a massive cyber attack took place in 2017 that successfully shutdown systems and networks belonging to government ministries, private companies, and important infrastructure right across Ukraine.

In 2015, another Russian attack on the electrical grid caused large areas of the country to experience blackouts. Russian cyber attacks are believed to pose a massive risk to infrastructure, data privacy, and internet freedom in Ukraine.

What's more, within Ukraine itself there are no legal protections that would stop the government from performing surveillance on citizens. However, the extent of government surveillance is largely unknown. However, a law passed in 2013 forces ISPs to:

Install at their own cost in their telecommunications networks all technical means necessary for performing operative and investigative activities by institutions with powers to do so.

There is no law that forces vendors of mobile phone or SIM technology to make consumers register with a form of ID. Thus, it is possible to purchase communications technology anonymously in Ukraine. However, this may not last long, because a new law has been drafted that seeks to force consumers to register with a form of ID.

Russian cyber-attacks have intensified in the lead-up to war with Ukraine, with many businesses suffering ransomware and data-wipe attacks. We cannot know the full scope of surveillance now deployed in Ukraine, but it is fair to assume Ukrainian social media and unencrypted communications channels are being monitored by Russian intelligence for troop movements and other strategic information. If you are concerned about surveillance in this form, we recommend using a VPN to ensure your traffic cannot be monitored. For more information, and our hand-picked recommendations, please see our Top 5 VPNs for Ukraine.

Although VPN traffic cannot be viewed by a third-party, it will be obvious to anyone who can see your connection (ISPs, other users on your LAN, or malicious internet users) that you are using a VPN. If you are concerned about this, we recommend you take a look at VPNs with Obfuscation technology.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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