The Russian exile who found a way past Putin's internet firewall

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Still reeling from the beating he had just received, Aleksandr Litreev could scarcely believe what he was being told: Russian officers had pulled a bag of MDMA from his car and he was being charged with possession.

Litreev had flown back to his homeland earlier that day, ahead of a conference. On the way from the airport to his hotel, his vehicle had been surrounded by more than ten cars filled with armed military police.

Although Litreev submitted to a body search, the atmosphere soured quickly when he refused to unlock his phone for the officers, who threw him to the ground and delivered a beating that pushed him to the brink of consciousness. It was only after he had been taken to the local police station that the bag of drugs materialized.

During the month in which he was imprisoned in early 2020, several additional charges were levied against Litreev relating to alleged extremism, hate speech and possession of foreign documents. Like the initial charge, Litreev says these allegations were all spurious. But given just 0.25% of people that faced Russian courts the previous year were acquitted, he knew his situation was desperate.

While under house arrest awaiting trial, he was able to establish a line of communication with the Estonian embassy, whose staff helped him escape over the Narva-Ivangorod border. Litreev declined to provide us with specific details, presumably for fear of endangering those who helped him escape.

The key to understanding why Litreev was a target of the Russian authorities, however, lies in events that took place a number of years prior.

Aleksandr Litreev

Aleksandr Litreev, who fled trial in Russia with the help of the Estonian embassy. (Image credit: Aleksandr Litreev)

Red Button

Litreev was born in 1996 and raised near St Petersburg, the second-largest city in Russia. His parents were engineers and both worked at the local nuclear power station.

Although Litreev didn’t follow in their footsteps directly, he did go on to study software engineering at the local university. It was during this period he became interested in cybersecurity, he told us.

Around the time Litreev concluded his studies, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny formalized his run for president ahead of the 2018 elections. Litreev had been following Navalny’s movement closely and managed to convince the team he could assist with cybersecurity matters. Before long, however, he found himself on the front lines.

“The more I got involved helping Navalny’s team with cybersecurity, the more I got involved in the protests themselves,” he explained.

In 2017, Navalny’s foundation released a film exposing corruption at the heart of the Russian government, specifically relating to the behavior of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The state dismissed the claims as nonsense, but the film sparked large-scale protests across the country that spanned many months, and many who participated were beaten and carted off by police.

Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny, anti-corruption activist. (Image credit: Shutterstock / Rosfoto)

In an effort to guard against the abuse of protesters in custody, Litreev developed a mobile app called Red Button, which he describes as “like Uber for lawyers”. Pressing the eponymous red button activates a GPS connection and sends an alert to both the person’s family and a community of lawyers, one of whom is dispatched to provide advice and assistance.

The app was an immediate success, flying to the top of app stores in Russia, and has since been used across multiple countries by hundreds of thousands of people living under oppressive regimes.

When we first spoke a few weeks ago, the app had roughly 1.1 million active users. But today, in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, that number is on the rise.

“Red Button registered more than 4,000 illegal detentions in the last three days and this number is growing constantly,” Litreev told us over email, on March 7.

“People are going out in massive numbers to the streets and attending rallies against the war. We are also registering messages of police cruelty (tortures, humiliation and etc.).”

In the largest European war of the digital age, Litreev’s mobile app looks set to play an important role. However, while the popularity of Red Button and his involvement in the Navalny movement was likely what first brought Litreev to the attention of the authorities, these were not the sole reasons for his notoriety.

A gaping hole

In response to the momentum building behind Navalny and his anti-corruption campaign in 2017-18, the Kremlin began to pursue a policy of heightened internet censorship.

The body responsible for enacting this policy, Roskomnadzor, began to block access to news outlets, blogs and other media that contained anti-government rhetoric, effectively erasing Navalny from the public web.

While investigating the mechanism by which the state was blocking these kinds of services, Litreev discovered a vulnerability that would allow any Russian citizen to ban any resource for the whole population. 

The exploit was tied to a list maintained by Roskomnadzor of banned domains, which were resolved into IP addresses by the internet service providers, who then blocked access for end users. By attaching the IP address of a legitimate service to a domain that featured on the list and was available for purchase, Litreev found that a malicious actor could take the service down across the country.

To test the theory, Litreev plugged an IP address associated with Google into one such domain. The result was that Google Search became temporarily unavailable for 70% of Russians, he claims.

Aleksandr Litreev

(Image credit: Aleksandr Litreev)

Litreev reported the vulnerability to the Russian government, but later made the details public when his initial disclosure went unacknowledged. Once word of the issue spread, people began buying up these available domains and performing the same trick to take down various popular services.

Later, in 2018, Litreev had another run-in with Roskomnadzor when the organization attempted to block messaging service Telegram, which was home to many anti-establishment communities, including a rather large one run by Litreev himself.

To preserve access to the service for Russian citizens, Litreev spun up “a hell of a lot” of proxy servers that allowed locals to bypass the restrictions. The system was funded largely by Litreev himself, but Paul Durov, the founder of Telegram, also began to donate in support. Soon, practically all Russian Telegram users were accessing the messaging app via Litreev’s proxy network.

When Roskomnadzor eventually abandoned its attempts to ban Telegram, Litreev turned the underlying infrastructure into a traditional VPN service, which he ran out of Estonia for a couple of years under the brand name Vee Security. 

However, a perpetual thorn in the side of Roskomnadzor, Litreev’s luck soon ran out. While living in Estonia, he was safe, but as soon as he returned to Russian soil, the government seized the opportunity to attempt to neutralize him.

VPN, but different

Since escaping Russia with the help of the Estonians, Litreev has turned his attention to a new project, drawing on his experience working with Navalny and fighting against the dictates of Roskomnadzor.

Last year, he established a new company called Solar Labs, which is working in collaboration with another firm, Exidio, to offer a decentralized VPN (dVPN) service on top of the Sentinel blockchain – and even a dedicated router that links directly into the network.

Unlike traditional VPN vendors, which operate large-scale server farms across the globe, the Sentinel ecosystem allows anyone to offer up their excess bandwidth to the network by creating their own VPN node. Someone looking to access the internet via an IP address in a certain location then pays the node provider directly in crypto tokens, which can be later exchanged into regular currency.

Although the Sentinel dVPN cannot compete with the likes of ExpressVPN or NordVPN from a performance perspective, the beauty of such a system is that the network is far more resilient to takedown attempts, says Litreev.

Sentinel

The emblem of the Sentinel ecosytem. (Image credit: The Sentinel Foundation)

“VPNs are most important in countries that suffer from problems with democracy and freedom of speech, like in Russia, China, Belarus, Venezuela etc.” he told us. “But governments are banning many traditional VPN services.”

In Russia, for example, the government has banned a host of the world’s most popular VPN services, Express and Nord included. And in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, more are sure to follow.

“With Sentinel, however, we are able to guarantee the user will always be able to access the internet, because there is no single legal entity behind the network” explained Litreev. “The community spins up a hell of a lot of nodes and the government doesn’t have the resources to ban them all individually.”

“We believe decentralization will become an important cornerstone of the VPN industry, something that will emerge as a major trend in the near future. Without taking VPN to the next level with blockchain, the big name providers will see their services come under threat in countries in which they are needed most.”

Mistakes and misconceptions

As many will know, Navalny was ultimately denied the opportunity to run for president due to a previous criminal conviction, which he claims was trumped up for political reasons. Instead, Vladimir Putin assumed office for his fourth term.

In 2020, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok nerve agent, the same substance responsible for the Salisbury poisonings in the UK. Although he survived the attack, perpetrated in all likelihood by the Russian state, he was swiftly jailed on return to Moscow – and in prison he remains.

The intolerance of dissent is something the Russian people have become accustomed to over the years. Worryingly, though, the Kremlin is now extending its tendrils further into digital society, the last remaining space in which dissent might flourish.

“We can consider the Russian government an occupier of Russian territory. They commit crimes against the Russian people.”

Aleksandr Litreev

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has blocked both Facebook and Twitter in an effort to prevent the spread of unsanctioned war imagery and cut off lines of communication that could be used by protesters to organize. The government has also rubber-stamped a bill that makes the spreading of “fake” news reports punishable with up to fifteen years in prison.

Asked about misconceptions held by people in the west about the lives of those living under autocratic rule, Litreev said something that rings painfully true in the aftermath of the attack on Ukraine.

“The US and EU still think it is possible to negotiate with dictators like Putin or Xi Jinping. But the Russian people know there is no possible way to reach an agreement that will not be violated by the Russian government,” he said.

“It is ridiculously stupid to attempt to agree on something with Putin, because he does not stick to his agreements. It is naive to expect him to behave politely or push for positive change in his country when there isn’t a single case of him doing so [in the past].”

Litreev also says that people underestimate the extent and strength of the resistance movement inside Russia, which has been formed in large part in the online communities threatened by the clampdown on internet activity.

By preserving access to the free and open internet for people living under oppressive regimes, not just in Russia but across the globe, Litreev hopes to carve out a space for anti-establishment voices and for alternative sources of information that cut through the rhetoric and propaganda.

“There are a lot of people in Europe who think that most Russians support Putin, but that’s not true at all; support for Putin is at a historically low level right now. The Russian people don’t want war with anyone, or to be censored,” Litreev told us.

“I personally think we can consider the Russian government as an occupier of Russian territory. They commit crimes against the Russian people.”

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