There’s no doubt that your online experience can be extremely limited from certain countries. More and more countries are seeking to take control over things like access to social media, political and religious websites and worryingly even many of the independent news sources available online. The practice of filtering and censorship grows everyday and there’s little sign of this trend reversing.
Most of the time, censorship of the internet is justified by a fight on crime, child abuse or other illegal practice. Generally those aims are flexible and can be extended to suit whatever the State decides, often the associated legislation is particularly vague to allow whatever interpretation is needed. Most countries who heavily police the internet have ‘catch all’ phrases which can cover pretty much anything they decide at the time. All over the world innocent journalists, bloggers and web users have been imprisoned for little more than expressing the ‘wrong opinion’ online, sometimes all it takes is a ‘like’ on a Facebook post to land people in trouble.
For people unfortunate enough to live in such places, using the internet safely involves protecting both their internet connection and maintaining anonymity. There are simple things like using pseudonyms and never putting any real information in social media profiles for instance. Yet ultimately it is the technical details which are most important, hiding your real ip address is vital.
This is because it doesn’t matter what information you leave online, your IP address can be linked to your physical location. Obviously in a public access point like a cafe or library this isn’t as important but if you’re using a home internet connection you have to be even more careful. This is why proxies and VPN are so important as they sit between you and the website you’re visiting in order to hide your location. Instead of your own IP being left, instead it’s that of the VPN/proxy that you are using.
Here’s an example of such a service being used, not for security but instead to fool the region locking of a big media site – it’s called a proxy for Netflix you can see it here.
In this scenario, Netflix is not able to see the true location of the viewer only that of the proxy server which allows full access. However using proxies to hide your location is fraught with dangers simply because they are relatively insecure. Firstly they do nothing to hide or secure any information you transmit and secondly proxies are by default set up to transmit a X-Forwarded-For HTTP header when they contact any server. This can be used to both detect the presence of the proxy and worse the originators IP address.
Any decent anonymous proxy server would be configured to not send this header but remember it is default behaviour and any upgrade or misconfiguration could easily override these changes. The danger is that as soon as any misconfiguration happens, the proxy will be identified and picked up by services such as IP2Location which maintain extensive databases of proxies, VPNs and TOR nodes.
In the case of media sites this simply means that attempts to bypass the region locks won’t work but for a political activist in somewhere like Thailand, China or Turkey then the repercussions can be much more serious.