Reasoning that cybercriminals often use virtual private networks (VPNs), the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is looking for a solution that can subvert VPNs and can trace IP addresses of users accessing this technology. This comes months after a parliamentary committee report recommended that VPNs be banned. VPN service providers claim to encrypt one’s internet traffic and one’s online identity, but that hasn’t always been the case.
The ministry in its ‘problem statement’ for Smart India Hackathon 2022, a contest where students will participate to work on such ‘problems’, said that the solution should —
- Determine if an IP is actual or a proxy/VPN IP address
- Trace the actual IP address
- Provide details of the VPN service provider
The usage of VPNs is not just limited to cybercriminals, as Indian government entities would have you believe. A considerable part of India’s workforce, including many defence organisations, use VPNs as part of their daily work.
Hackers and cybercriminals use VPNs: Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment
“Cybercriminals sitting in any corner of the world are able to unleash significant damage through different types of cyber crimes such as hacking, identity theft and ransomware. The anonymity offered by the internet encourages them to commit these attacks without any fear whatsoever. Hackers use various techniques to hide their digital footprint making it difficult for law enforcement agencies to catch and prosecute them. One common technique is to not access the target computer directly but rather through a “proxy” server or a VPN server, which essentially acts as a layer between them and the target computer.” — Social Justice Ministry
Additionally, the ministry said that participants can test their solution on web browsing, with and without a proxy or a VPN for demonstrating their solution. External third-party services are not recommended, the ministry added.
Parliamentary Committee recommended a ban on VPNs
In 2021, terming it as a ‘technological challenge’ that allegedly allows ‘criminals to remain anonymous online’, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs urged the Indian government to block all VPNs.
“As of date, VPN can easily be downloaded, as many websites are providing such facilities and advertising them. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the Ministry of Home Affairs should coordinate with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to identify and permanently block such VPNs with the help of internet service providers.” — Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs
These are the other points that the committee made regarding the usage of VPNs —
- Recommend that a coordination mechanism should be developed with international agencies to ensure that VPNs are blocked permanently.
- Ministry (of Home Affairs) must take initiatives to “strengthen tracking and surveillance mechanisms” to put a check on the use of VPN and the dark web.
- Summary: Government further simplifies guidelines for Other Service Providers
- Governments scraps VPN, bank guarantee, work-from-home restrictions on Other Service Providers
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Update, February 22, 9.32 am: The sentence “VPNs encrypt one’s internet traffic and one’s online identity” and the excerpt was rephrased for accuracy.