Do You Live in a VPN-Safe Country?
VPNs enjoy a completely legal status in most countries, but they are also completely outlawed in some. Sadly, there are countries where the mere use of a VPN can merit criminal sanctions, regardless of whether or not they are being used for completely legal purposes. There are also countries where VPNs may not be considered outright illegal, but where internet access is so repressed that any activity done through VPNs may be considered criminal.
As of this writing, there are 10 countries that have completely blocked VPN access for its citizens. They are listed below in alphabetical order.
10 VPN-Hostile Countries
1. BELARUS. This European country has not only illegalized VPN use, it has also laid out rules to restrict access to internet resources outside its borders. The restrictions have been broken through by enterprising citizens, but it still remains a VPN-hostile country.
2. CHINA. The Asian giant is famous for its Great Firewall that blocks access to thousands of sites across the world. Among those blocked are VPN servers that aren’t licensed by the Chinese government. This means that VPNs must be willing to share their subscribers’ information to the government to be allowed to operate in the country.
Unlike in Belarus and many other states, China has achieved near-total control of the country’s internet resources. They are able to block a huge majority of VPNs, though the more advanced ones are able to break through no problem.
3. IRAN. Like China, VPNs have to be registered with the Iranian government in order to operate within its borders. Even the simple act of promoting VPNs is considered a crime, though many are able to get past the blocks and still access various VPN services.
4. IRAQ. Iraq’s move to ban VPNs (and other aspects of the Internet, such as social media) is an attempt to curtail the growth of ISIS within its territory. The terrorist group has been known to use the internet chiefly for its propaganda. The state also institutes rolling internet blackouts to further disrupt the presence of terrorists, therefore making even a simple steady internet connection very difficult.
5. OMAN. This country has passed a heavy-handed legislation that slaps any VPN user with more than $1,000 worth of fines. Instead of allowing external VPN companies to operate within its borders, the country has its own government-sanctioned service that corporations can use.
6. RUSSIA. Much like China, Russia has passed laws to ensure that VPN services apply for government permits before being allowed in the country. The government also strictly logs the online activity of its citizens, and they are also blocked from accessing a list of “blacklisted” sites.
7. TURKEY. As of the time of this writing, Turkey is experiencing political upheavals that had greatly undermined the rule of law. Arrests are being made left and right, and the mere use of VPN can cause one to be arrested pursuant to the criminalization of their use since 2016. Like China, they are also keeping close tabs on their citizens’ internet activity, employing technology to sniff out those who connect to VPNs. The technology isn’t as mature as that of China, though, and many are still able to sneak past censorship through VPN services.
8. UGANDA. This African country has done the unthinkable — tax social media usage. To prevent the government from logging their Facebook hours, Ugandans have resorted to using VPNs. In response, the government has mandated that local ISPs block VPN services. This isn’t outright legislation, but the government’s strong-arm tactics merit great concern.
9. UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. UAE’s laws against VPNs are fairly specific, only outlawing the use of VPNs to commit crimes or to prevent their discovery. There are permissible uses on VPN, but it’s still very easy to cross the line so the chilling effect spreads out. The government has also banned several online services, from VoIPs to Netflix. Since they are illegal, so is their access through VPNs.
10. VENEZUELA. Like in Uganda, there is no outright legislation against VPN usage in Venezuela. However, its largest ISP has moved to block all VPN access through its service, and many suspect that this is a government-sanctioned move.
Aside from these countries, there are also those areas where, while VPNs aren’t outright banned, internet access is so difficult that it might as well be a crime to gain external access through VPN services. These include ETHIOPIA and CUBA, where internet access has been very heavily regulated by the government. SYRIA also implements strict measures like those in Iraq, with government-mandated internet outages being common.
In all these countries, we’ll find a common denominator — they all have governments who wish to restrict their citizen’s access to the oceans of information available through the Internet. They fear that such information will inspire their people towards dissent, and will eventually lead to the destabilization of the states’ power structures.
As it stands, however, it’s not just paranoid governments who have a stake in the monitoring of VPN activity. There are several other countries that infringe upon the privacy measures that VPNs are supposed to offer, in the spirit of policing the Internet for potentially criminal activities. These countries are those that have signed intelligence-sharing treaties, as well as measures that require VPN companies to submit any user-related details they gather whenever the government demands it. You have read about these countries through the nicknames 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, and 14 Eyes.
The 5 Eyes originally stemmed from a post-WWII agreement between the member countries to share information that may be useful in battling Communist resurgence in the West. However, there’s much more to the treaty, as evidenced by the fact that it had been kept a secret until 2005! No one knows the full extent of the information gathering these countries have done, but suffice it to say that they were involved in several intrusive surveillance practices. Experts believe that several global electronic communications spy networks, with James Bond-esque code names such as “STONEGHOST” and “PRISM”, are integral to the 5 Eyes effort.
The 5 Eyes include:
- The United States
- The United Kingdom
- New Zealand
Seeing how quickly technology is advancing across the world, the 5 Eyes also sought the help of additional allies to further their goals. This eventually became known as the 9 Eyes, a name informally given after privacy whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed their existence. The additional four countries in the 9 Eyes are considered “third parties” in the surveillance setup, and may not enjoy the same privileges as the original 5 Eyes. Still, no one knows for sure the full extent of their treaties’ coverage.
The additional 4 countries in the 9 Eyes are:
- The Netherlands
Another expansion of the Eyes came at the end of the Cold War, when NATO members agreed into a loose agreement to share intelligence. They had been christened the 14 Eyes. The new countries drafted into the fold are:
On top of these, several security experts have called attention to the support lent to the 14 Eyes by non-member states, such as Japan and Israel.
What do the Eyes mean for me?
Being in an Eyes country, or using a VPN provider headquartered in one of the Eyes, can be lethal to your privacy. These countries not only have the power to tap into electronic communications within their respective territories, they can also compel companies to turn over their collected data about any user, whether these data be SMS messages, call logs, email history, or browsing data — the last of which include anywhere from time stamps to keyword searches. These countries also have the technology to break through weaker VPN encryption protocols, so choosing the right VPN provider is essential.
Note, however, that these facts only point to a cause for concern and not paranoia. Just because you live in the US doesn’t mean you’re already under the microscope of the National Security Agency — unless you have given them reason to, thanks to shady internet activities. The regulations of the Eyes focus mostly on identifying potential threats to national security, not on profiling what type of fantasies the populace would Google at midnight.
Still, it’s great to know that if you choose to go the extra mile in protecting your privacy (and you should!) there are several VPN services available outside of the 14 Eyes. If you truly have no other choice, going as far away from the core 5 Eyes countries would be best. The 9 Eyes countries are better for privacy than the 5 Eyes, and the 14 Eyes are better than the 9 Eyes.