VPN companies are squaring up for a fight with the Indian government over new rules designed to change how they operate in the country. On April 28, officials announced that virtual private network companies will be required to collect swathes of customer data—and maintain it for five years or more—under a new national directive. VPN providers have two months to accede to the rules and start collecting data.
The justification from the country’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) is that it needs to be able to investigate potential cybercrime. But that doesn’t wash with VPN providers, some of whom have said they may ignore the demands. “This latest move by the Indian government to require VPN companies to hand over user personal data represents a worrying attempt to infringe on the digital rights of its citizens,” says Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN. He adds that the company would never log user information or activity and that it will adjust its “operations and infrastructure to preserve this principle if and when necessary.”
Other VPN providers are also considering their options. Gytis Malinauskas, head of Surfshark’s legal department, says the VPN provider couldn’t currently comply with India’s logging requirements because it uses RAM-only servers, which automatically overwrite user-related data. “We are still investigating the new regulation and its implications for us, but the overall aim is to continue providing no-logs services to all of our users,” he says. ProtonVPN is similarly concerned, calling the move an erosion of civil liberties. “ProtonVPN is monitoring the situation, but ultimately we remain committed to our no-logs policy and preserving our users’ privacy,” says spokesperson Matt Fossen. “Our team is investigating the new directive and exploring the best course of action,” says Laura Tyrylyte, head of public relations at Nord Security, which develops Nord VPN. “We may remove our servers from India if no other options are left.”
The hardball response from VPN providers shows how much is at stake. India has rapidly shifted away from a free and open democracy and launched crackdowns on non-governmental organizations, journalists, and activists, many of whom use VPNs to communicate. Human Rights Watch recently warned that media freedom is under attack in the country, with a number of law and policy changes threatening the rights of minority citizens in the country. India dropped eight places in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index in the past year and now sits 150th out of 180 countries worldwide. Authorities are alleged to have targeted journalists, stoking nationalist division and encouraging harassment of reporters who are critical of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. By collecting and storing data on all VPN users in India, authorities may find it easier to see who VPN-using journalists are contacting and why.
Officials in India have claimed that the new rules for VPN providers aren’t part of a data grab aimed at further stymying press freedoms, but rather an attempt to better police cybercrime. India has been hit by a number of significant data breaches in recent years and was the third-most affected country worldwide in 2021. “Data breaches have become so common in India that they no longer make front page news as they used to,” says Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer and founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, a technology legal support services provider in India. In May 2021, the names, email addresses, locations, and phone numbers of more than 1 million customers of Domino’s Pizza were stolen and posted online; in the same year, the personal information of 110 million users of digital payment platform MobiKwik ended up on the dark web. Now, as the major incidents pile up, Indian officials are going after VPNs in an apparent attempt to reign in the cybercrime surge.
“CERT-In is duty-bound to respond to any cybersecurity incidents,” says Srinivas Kodali, a researcher focusing on digitalization in India from the Free Software Movement of India—though he disputes its efficacy in doing so. Having this information on hand should, in theory, allow CERT-In to investigate any incidents more speedily after the fact. But many don’t believe that’s the full story. “CERT-In doesn’t really have a clean past, and they’ve never really protected citizens’ privacy,” Kodali claims. “According to the rules, they are going to only demand these logs when they actually need them for part of an investigation. But in India, you never know how they will be abused.”
Such concerns of overreach are not unfounded. According to data published in April 2022 by Access Now, an advocacy group lobbying for internet freedoms, India was responsible for 106 of the 182 documented internet shutdowns in 2021. It was the fourth successive year the country held the unenviable title of the internet shutdown capital of the world. At the same time, India’s government has allegedly misled parliament about its use and deployment of the Israeli-produced spyware Pegasus against 160 politicians, lawyers, and activists within the country.