Amnezia VPN adds new protocol to evade censors more easily

Based on an open-source WireGuard protocol, AmneziaWG was specifically designed to help users bypass strict internet censorship in countries that ban virtual private networks (VPNs).

The result of a 2020 hackathon organized by Roskomsvoboda, a Russian digital rights group, Amnezia is a free software that allows users to bypass internet censorship by creating a personal VPN using their own server and protocols that are harder to detect.

One of these, Amnezia’s own AmneziaWG protocol, is the latest addition. It’s an improved version of a popular WireGuard protocol and was designed to be used in the world’s harshest internet climates.

“We think it will help people in countries where mass VPNs are blocked due to strict censorship. This is very much needed now in Russia, and we are also seeing requests from China, Iran, Turkmenistan,” Roskomsvoboda’s Natalya Malysheva said.

According to Amnezia developers, the new protocol maintains the high performance of WireGuard but adds an “extra layer of stealth” for those seeking a fast and discreet VPN connection.

While an otherwise effective protocol, WireGuard is not always reliable because it has distinctive packet features, including static data that censors can recognize and block.

AmneziaWG is a fork of WireGuard protocol but addresses detection issues with what its developers said are “advanced obfuscation methods,” allowing its traffic to “blend seamlessly” with regular internet traffic.

How does it compare to others?

Amnezia VPN does not require users to register, allowing all features to be accessed anonymously. It does not keep any logs of user activity and says that it does not track users or use their personal data for any purposes.

The software also supports multiple protocols, which is what differentiates it from the only other comparable service, Outline VPN from Google-backed Jigsaw.

“Jigsaw's Outline VPN is currently losing its relevance in countries with strict censorship because it uses Shadowsocks, which is able to block in China, Russia, and other countries where DPI is used,” said Stanislav Shakirov, chief operating officer at Amnezia.

DPI, or deep packet inspection, is a method of examining the data sent over a computer network. Jigsaw’s Prefix technology, allowing a small number of users to bypass Shadowsocks blocking, proved to be “extremely ineffective,” Shakirov said.

“Amnezia VPN uses more modern and reliable tools to bypass blocking,” he said. In addition to its latest AmneziaWG protocol, it also supports OpenVPN over Cloak, which protects the VPN from active probing and masks the connection, making it look like a usual HTTPS connection from a Firefox or Chrome browser.

Amnezia’s use of different protocols also allows it to tailor each to different censorship regimes. For example, tests of AmneziaWG in several countries revealed “controversial” results, according to Shakirov.

“We were able to test it only with several home providers in China – it didn’t work for all of them. But AmneziaWG shows itself perfectly in all countries where unfamiliar UDP [user data protocol] traffic is not cut,” Shakirov said.

Meanwhile, OpenVPN over Cloak had “successful tests” in China, as well as Iran, but AmneziaWG is better at avoiding detection without losing speed, he noted.

State censors in different countries are improving their DPI algorithms, so it’s impossible to make one working product or protocol and calm down. You must always be online, monitor what is happening in certain parts of the world, and invent new approaches to overcome censorship,” Shakirov said.

Why is it important?

After invading Ukraine, the Russian government has blocked or severely restricted Russians’ access to independent or foreign sources of information, as well as entertainment. VPNs have allowed its citizens to circumvent these restrictions.

In 2023, the number of VPN users in Russia has increased by 37% on a year-on-year basis and 2.5 times when compared to 2021, according to new research shared with the Russian edition of Forbes.

The results of an analysis showed Moscow accounting for the highest share of VPN users in Russia, at 11%, followed by Krasnodar Krai – the region closest to the Russian-annexed Crimea – at 9%, St Petersburg (8%), Rostov (5%), and Perm (5%).

The primary age group of VPN users is 35-44 years, according to the advertising research firm Platforma, which carried out the study.

VPNs are heavily restricted in Russia but not completely banned – with the debate ongoing on whether they should be outlawed entirely. Senator Artem Sheikin, a harsh opponent of VPN use, argues Russia should create a Chinese-style “great-firewall.”

In September, Russia’s censorship body Roskomnadzor said it could start blocking VPN services from March 1st, 2024. Digital Development Minister Maksut Shadayev later clarified that the authorities were not planning to penalize people who use VPN services.

According to Roskomsvoboda, the digital rights organization, the crackdown against VPNs will intensify in Russia, but China’s example shows that cracks can appear even in a highly censored and controlled internet environment, especially when there is a soaring demand for banned information.

Amnezia is available to download online in English and Russian, with plans to launch a Farsi edition soon. It also has a Telegram bot that gives users access to banned websites and social platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, or X (formerly Twitter).

As it says it does not track users, app downloads alone indicate that there are more than 250,000 Amnezia VPN users in Russia and over 200,000 elsewhere in the world.

“Our immediate plans are to finish split tunneling on all platforms, implement XRay and team management to manage user profiles within organizations. We hope to finish all this in 2024. This will bring the Amnezia VPN self-hosted VPN software to perfection,” Shakirov said.

“Further, we can focus more on censorship methods in different countries and prepare some free solutions for residents of these countries,” he added.

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