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Snowflake helped Tor users thwart Russian censorship. Now the VPN is branching out as Snowstorm.
February 11, 2023

Snowflake helped Tor users thwart Russian censorship. Now the VPN is branching out as Snowstorm.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

As protest and unrest grew in Russia and Iran over the past year, authoritarian regimes sought to crack down on civilians’ internet access. These attempts were not entirely successful, in part thanks to anti-censorship tools like the anonymous web browser Tor.

For years, Tor has been a thorn in the side of censorious rulers looking to stop its citizens from freely accessing the internet, but the Russian and Iranian governments have learned its weaknesses and succeeded in blocking direct access to the Tor network at certain times.

But unlike other services blocked by these governments, Tor has been deployed alongside the traffic-channeling tool Snowflake, enabling its network to function amid efforts at censorship.

Snowflake’s creator, who goes only by the one-word name ‘Serene,’ told MediaDownloader in a phone interview that she expected the tool to be ‘helpful for people who need it,’ but didn’t foresee just how crucial her ‘cool prototype’ would be when it was first integrated with Tor years ago.

‘Turns out last year, Putin invades Ukraine and blocks the Internet, blocks all the VPNs, and the only thing that’s working is Snowflake,’ she said.

Now, the creator of Snowflake is branching the technology out in order to create a standalone VPN-like service called Snowstorm aimed at expanding open access to the internet.

Snowstorm officially launched this week, albeit as a private beta that requires an invitation. The company also announced that it has received $1 million in funding, which it has used to bring on a full-time team of developers.

‘I don’t think our Internet nowadays is doing what it should be doing for humans,’ said Serene, now also the founder of Snowstorm. ‘The early Internet was instrumental for me learning everything, growing as a person, becoming the best version of myself, and I want to protect that for people.’

Why Snowstorm is not like other VPNs

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is essentially a service that hides a user’s identity and internet activity while they browse.

‘A VPN is just someone else’s computer that you connect to first before you connect to the Internet,’ Serene explains. ‘You’re getting some amount of privacy but the issue is these VPN services are…just servers in different places. Where those computers are is public knowledge. And so any state actor certainly can easily just block all of those targets.’

This is why Russia and Iran were able to censor these VPN services, but not Snowflake.

What makes Snowflake different is what it’s composed of: ‘decentralized, ephemeral, temporary proxies,’ said Serene.

As Serene explains it, Snowflake works thanks to a number of volunteers in free regions from all over the globe who come together to help those in censored countries. Volunteers can just leave a browser tab open and their internet connection is added to the pool of volunteer connections as a temporary proxy, which helps Snowflake users connect to the internet. To protect volunteers, Snowflake users connect to Snowflake proxies through a Tor entry node, meaning a volunteers’ ISP never sees the web activity of a user and a user never accesses a volunteer’s computer.

If a volunteer closes their connection, the code simply hands off the user’s internet session to another Snowflake volunteer.

‘Because of that, instead of just one centralized place where the VPN is being run, there’s like all of these temporary proxies coming in and out of existence, which makes it very hard for a nation state to block,’ Serene said. ‘Putin couldn’t block it.’

Snowstorm takes this service and provides it with a huge upgrade. The system has been completely re-written for Snowstorm and users can connect directly, without using Tor (Snowflake will continue to be available for Tor users). Serene tells MediaDownloader that Snowstorm is much faster than Snowflake. With Snowstorm, for example, users can stream high-quality YouTube videos, which was not possible on Snowflake.

Serene is realistic as to where Snowstorm currently is. After all, Snowstorm is only in private beta now and still has rounds of testing, additional upgrades, and audits to undergo. Over the phone, Serene spoke about promises of ‘military-grade’ encryption and security that a lot of privacy companies promise and fail to deliver on.

But, Serene is aware of what Snowstorm’s capabilities are. Aside from the most extreme measure of taking a country offline entirely, the technology powering Snowflake and Snowstorm has not been bested by authoritarian regimes so far.

‘I’m not directly guaranteeing any particular level of privacy and I don’t want to over exaggerate the privacy virtues of any particular technology,’ Serene explained. ‘But, the guarantee here is that we can break censorship.’


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