On March 16, Russia’s Prosecutor-General added Bellingcat’s website to a blocklist. This is the latest of Moscow’s ongoing attempts to prevent our investigations reaching the public.
We have been aware of the possibility that our website will be blocked for some time and remain committed to our readers in Russia. To that end, we have taken measures to ensure that they can continue to access our website. These include the use of Tor browsers and VPNs.
We’ve also rebooted our Russian-language channel on Telegram, the messaging service which has yet to be blocked by the Russian authorities. We particularly encourage our Russian readers to subscribe and join the (at time of writing) 26,000 others who have done so in the last week alone.
Bellingcat has created a mirror version of our website that is accessible directly through Cloudfront, a major content distribution network. Because Cloudfront is used widely across the internet, it is more difficult to directly block. These mirrors do not require any additional tools to access, but do not provide the same level of privacy as a VPN or the Tor browser. You can find the URLs below — please contact us via Telegram should any of these cease to work.
Ukraine civilian casualties map: https://dar3kj2zfxmt7.cloudfront.net
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)
A VPN (or virtual private network) is a piece of software that you install on your device (laptop, phone or tablet) in order to protect your internet connection. A VPN does that by “re-routing” your entire internet connection through a trusted server that sits between your machine and the world wide web. This allows you to hide your true location and protects your privacy by using strong encryption.
A VPN can also have a censorship circumvention function which allows you to access blocked internet content. The issue with using a VPN is one of trust: you need to make sure you trust the company that provides the service. While most VPN providers claim that they do not keep logs on their users, most of them, as it turns out, do.
Furthermore, the risk that a VPN provider might leak information on users or be susceptible to government requests remains high. However, if you trust your VPN provider more than you trust your ISP or your government, then it makes sense to use one, especially if it operates outside of the jurisdiction of your government.
But in any case, users should not expect that a VPN provides complete anonymity. We’d recommend that you find a provider that collects the least data about its users, offers a reliable and fast VPN service, uses strong encryption and engages in extensive auditing practices. We do not recommend the use of free VPN services; you could end up paying with your connection data to unknown third parties.
If you’re in Russia, check out the website of digital rights NGO Roskomsvoboda. There you’ll find a list of recommended VPNs as part of their ‘Open RuNet’ project.
We can’t fully vouch for any of these services ourselves, but they are popular by many Russian internet users.
The Tor Browser
Another option is to use Tor (The Onion Relay), a protocol that encrypts and routes internet requests through a network of relay nodes, which makes it more difficult for an internet service provider to track a user’s internet traffic. Tor bridge relays are a way of connecting to Tor without connecting to any of Tor’s publicly known relay IP addresses, which provides additional security for users living under governments that ban Tor.
However, users must know that the last server in a Tor relay, known as an “exit node,” will be able to monitor and record traffic. Tor hides activity from a particular user’s internet service provider, but the user should assume that all activity over the Tor network is being monitored by someone, just not the user’s ISP.
Though the official Tor website is banned in Russia, there are many mirrors from which the Tor browser can be downloaded, such as those provided by the EFF and Roskomsvoboda. It’s worth noting that the Tor Project generally recommends against using Tor with a VPN, due to the potential for the VPN provider to reduce the anonymity of the user.
Downloading the Tor browser allows you to access top-level domain names on the so-called ‘darknet’.
We’ve created five ‘onion sites’, so named because they can be accessed via Tor. They mirror the main Bellingcat website in all languages, allowing you to browse our investigations just like you used to.
You can find the URLs below – once again, please contact us via Telegram should any of these cease to work.
Other Methods and Words of Warning
Methods like these can easily turn any government’s attempts to block specific websites into a game of cat and mouse.
Nevertheless, it is worth emphasising that no single anonymisation method is completely safe. Bad actors can run Tor nodes. Governments have the ability to selectively de-anonymise Tor users. Some VPNs even provide a financial paper trail or provide user information to governments.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning a couple more methods.
One is to use an entire privacy-focused operating system such as TAILS (https://tails.boum.org/) or Qubes (https://www.qubes-os.org/). However, this requires downloading and installing a Linux-based operating system, which is potentially inconvenient and difficult for less technically-skilled users.
Perhaps the easiest way to bypass Russian website blocks is to use a proxy service on the ‘clearnet’ (as opposed to the ‘darknet’, accessible only via Tor). One example can be found here. However, we leave this suggestion until last for two very simple reasons: firstly these sites can themselves be easily blocked by the Russian government. Secondly, we typically don’t know who runs these proxy services — that means we don’t know who’s recording visitor IP addresses and for what purpose.
If any of the above methods cease working, or if you have suggestions for improving them, please let us know via the Bellingcat Tech Team’s contact form or send a message to our Russian-language Telegram channel.