In response to censorship, Proton VPN is giving away its new Stealth feature for free and has helped Iranian protesters sideload the company’s app.
By Max Eddy
After seeing crackdowns on protests in Iran and Russia, Proton VPN created a new feature to disguise VPN traffic and sneak past government censors. Proton is following through on its anti-censorship stance by making this feature, known as Stealth, available to free VPN users. The company is even sending the app directly to Iranians by request.
When I spoke with Samuele Kaplun, Proton’s engineering director, he explained that Proton VPN’s Stealth feature is based on WireGuard over TLS. He said that Proton VPN is taking WireGuard, which is normally based on UDP, and wrapping it in TLS and sending the traffic over port 443. In essence, Stealth effectively disguises VPN traffic as more humdrum HTTPS traffic, which Kaplun says makes it much harder for deep packet inspection to spot.
Proton VPN told me that Stealth mode was already quietly available on Android and is now functional on iOS and macOS. Windows will have to come later. Android was given priority because of the ubiquity of Android devices, especially outside of the US.
“The people who need it the most are using mobile, and mostly Android,” Kaplun said.
I should note that Proton has been criticized for not living up to its privacy claims with its Mail product, but the company says it addressed the issue and the VPN was not affected.
Kaplun was very clear that this new feature is for bypassing censorship in countries that are using deep packet inspection to block VPNs, specifically Iran and Russia. He emphasized that a major impetus was the reporting on major protests in both of those countries and alleged law enforcement crackdowns that followed.
It appears to be working. Kaplun told me that Proton VPN’s monitoring architecture has already seen more connections from Russia and Iran. The company is also hearing directly from users. “And in Russia in particular…Now that we’ve introduced it, people are giving feedback that they are now back online,” said Kaplun.
Normally, VPN companies tell me about their ethics and censorship stance, but quickly move on to how fast their VPN is or how many streaming services it can access. Proton VPN, meanwhile, described the lengths it took to get its app into people’s hands.
The Proton VPN website is blocked in Iran, Kaplun explained, and Iranians began contacting the company through its customer service system. The company responded by providing the Android APK directly to people through these support exchanges. The support staff instructed customers to sideload the updated application that includes the new Stealth feature.
“We believe that the people who need to bypass censorship the most are the same people who are not necessarily able to pay for [a VPN service],” said Kaplun, who cited embargoes against countries like Russia that would prevent companies from doing business with everyday Russians.
“Accessing the internet is a human right, so we’re doing our part.”
This meeting reminded me of similar conversations I’ve had with representatives from a different VPN company. Over the years, they would often talk about how important it was that they offered a free version and how they saw it as their way to give back to the world and support a free and open internet. Their representatives told me more than once how their company’s name was painted on walls by protestors.
And then they would tell me that their company was also obligated to monetize their free users with advertisements.
Those free servers, they’d remind me, cost money, after all. And they had such an enormous free user base that it would be foolish not to monetize them. How could they justify not doing so? It always struck me as practical, logical, and deeply cynical. The freedom to access information is a right only unalienable as long as it also pays the bills.
To be fair, Proton surely believes that talking about its ideals is good for business, and it isn’t alone. IVPN and Mullvad VPN offer extremely low-cost services with very strong transparency and privacy protections. TunnelBear VPN has also long put its values at the forefront.
Even outside the world of security and privacy, technology companies increasingly want to sell us on the idea that they are moral entities and that purchasing their products does good for the world. These days, everything from your phone to smart speakers claims to be about bringing humanity together or something to that effect.
But very few companies seem as hopeful as Proton VPN. Proton believes that combating censorship will make the world a better place and that technology can improve people’s lives, not just monetize them in new and more complex ways.
The world has seemed short on hope for many years, and the technology industry especially so. Although I would love to see more companies take a page from Proton VPN and give more away for free, I’ll settle for a little optimism that’s not just for marketing’s sake.