Iraqis use WiFi apps to get around those pesky government Internet bans

A Facebook logo on an iPad is reflected in source code on the LCD screen of a computer, in this photo illustration taken in Sarajevo June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

It's a common theme now that when certain governments face dissent, they look to clamp down on communications by blocking social networking sites. As my Washington Post colleague Craig Timberg reported, several governments  -- most recently the Iraqi government -- have used this tactic, albeit with limited success.

Iraq in particular had trouble shutting down Web access in parts of the country that the government no longer controls, Timberg reported. But even in places where governments do successfully block traffic, some people are getting around those blocks by using apps to connect to virtual private networks.

Most people use these WiFi security apps to protect themselves when using public WiFi networks or to connect to sites based in their home countries when they're abroad. But according to David Gorodyansky of AnchorFree, a security firm that makes apps to protect Web traffic,  his company has seen a 11,000 percent increase in downloads of its "HotSpot Shield" app since the Iraqi government moved to block Facebook, Twitter and YouTube last Friday. Active daily users across the whole service  jumped to 112,000 from a normal baseline of 19,000 as a result of the spike.

And it's not an isolated event.

"When Turkey blocked Twitter, we saw more than 1.2 million users in 72 hours use AnchorFree to get around the Twitter block," he said. Weeks earlier, AnchorFree saw the same thing happen in Venezuela.

"Every year we've had these spikes," he said. During the Arab Spring, the company saw spikes in use in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. He said that AnchorFree has never heard from any of the governments of any country where it's seen a spike in users.

Of course, the app has other uses, as well. Gorodyansky said that when there's a virus scare the company also tends to see increases in traffic.

"We often catch [threats] before the antivirus guys, because we see all the threats that come in and out on a network layer," he said.

He added that it seems that more people are using VPN apps across the board, indicating a bump in how much care people are paying to their online privacy for various reasons. Some use them to keep from being tracked by advertisers. Others tell the firm they downloaded it because of the revelations about National Security Agency surveillance. Gorodyansky also said he's recently learned about another unusual scenario.

"We recently learned that a lot of women use us to protect their location on dating sites," he said. "It's a way to stop some creepy guy from showing up at their house."

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.



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Brian Fung · June 19, 2014