Downloads of virtual private network (VPN) software and apps have surged after China’s central government announced that it would pass a new national security law tailor-made for Hong Kong, sparking fears among some netizens of increased surveillance and censorship from Beijing.
Hours after news of the new law broke on Thursday, leading provider NordVPN said it received 120 times more inquiries about its service than the day before and the number was “growing every hour.”
This was “one of the biggest spikes [in demand for VPNs] we’ve ever observed,” NordVPN’s head of public relations Laura Tyrell said in a statement.
Such spikes are common in response to government policies implying an increase in online surveillance or restrictions, such as when the UK expanded electronic surveillance in 2016 and when the US repealed net neutrality rules in 2018, she said, adding that the company observed similar spikes in Hong Kong last year during the anti-extradition protests.
“A VPN provides privacy and security online and in such cases is the only tool that helps to avoid surveillance and access the internet without restrictions,” the NordVPN spokeswoman said.
A Beijing source told the Post on Thursday the planned new law would ban all seditious activities aimed at toppling the central government, as well as external interference in Hong Kong. It would also target terrorist acts in the city.
The central government’s move has caused panic among some internet users. On LIHKG, a local Reddit-like forum, a post titled “(National Security Law) Please install VPN now!!!” garnered more than 1,700 likes in less than a day.
“The National Security Law will be directly included in Annex III of the Basic Law tonight. Everyone on the internet must take measures to protect themselves. Please install VPN now,” the LIHKG user wrote on Thursday.
VPNs work by re-routing internet traffic to other locations, and are a popular way for mainland Chinese users to get around the so-called Great Firewall and access blocked sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Using such tools, it is possible for users to protect themselves against governments intercepting their data although their protection is not completely fail-safe, according to Michael Gazeley, managing director at Hong Kong-based cybersecurity firm Network Box.
“VPN configuration and encryption standards vary, and can certainly help to ensure data privacy,” said Gazeley. “But you need to know what you are doing, or you need to use a professionally managed cybersecurity firm who can set it up for you.”
“There is no technology that can protect you 100%, but VPN will make the [identity tracing process] very hard,” said Xue Lei, a research assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s department of computing.
Xue said that user data still goes through the VPN provider’s server, so technically the latter has the ability to identify users, but if the VPN provider protects its users it will be hard for others to trace them.
On Apple’s App Store, four out of the top five free apps downloaded in Hong Kong on Friday were VPN-related, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.
NordVPN shot up to the top spot among apps downloaded in Hong Kong, from 381st place two days ago, followed by Outline VPN and ProtonVPN, Sensor Tower data showed.
Outline and Proton Technologies, the organisations behind the second and third top downloaded apps respectively, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Aside from VPNs, messaging app Telegram is popular among Hong Kong protesters as it offers a “Secret Chat” function that encrypts messages, protecting the communications and identities of members. Some pro-democracy groups like HKMap Live and Hong Kong Free Press are also accepting donations through bitcoin, a cryptocurrency which allows users to make payments or transfer money across borders anonymously.