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This article was published on October 23, 2011

Hotspot Shield: A quiet hero for Internet privacy and security around the world

Hotspot Shield: A quiet hero for Internet privacy and security around the world
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

In Tunisia, after the former president Ben Ali fled the country, the use of privacy tool Hotspot Shield took a dive, going from over 70 million page views in January, steadily decreasing to 4 million page views in August. Throughout the year, the majority of these page views have centred on social networking site, Facebook.

Egypt, on the other hand, saw a striking spike from 100,000 users to 1 million overnight as the protests began, and unlike Tunisia, the use of Hotspot Shield has not only remained steady after the fall of former president Mubarak, but its use seems to have increased, as Egyptians continue to protect their Internet use from prying governmental eyes.

In Libya, Hotspot Shield use was an easy way to track exactly when the Libyan government would flip the switch on the country’s Internet. During the day, traffic was steady, at around 30,000 users at its highest, plummeting at night when the government cut its people off from the rest of the world.

In China, Hotspot Shield gains popularity with each move that the Chinese government makes to clamp down on freedom of online expression.

In the US, Hotspot Shield saw a spike in usage when it emerged that Google Maps cars were collecting people’s personal data via unencrypted Wi-Fi networks, or when Facebook launched a cookie which tracks users regardless of whether they’re logged into the social network or not.

Privacy and security are universal concerns, but the way in which these concerns manifest themselves vary from country to country, from continent to continent, and if there’s one company that knows a thing or two about privacy, it’s the company behind Hotspot Shield, AnchorFree.

AnchorFree was co-founded by Eugue Malobrodsky and David Gorodyansky five years ago. The Next Web had the opportunity to speak to David and learn more about where AnchorFree started, and what insight the Hotspot Shield service has given on Middle Eastern and international privacy concerns.

An Interview with David Gorodyansky

Nancy Messieh: First off, please let us know a little bit about you and your personal history. 

David Gorodyansky: I co-founded AnchorFree with my long time childhood friend Eugue Malobrodsky when we were 24 years old. We had a vision of creating a completely free and widely distributed online privacy solution for the masses, and five years later we can proudly state that this is exactly what we have done.

NM: As one of the founders, what was the inspiration behind creating Hotspot Shield and what did it take to make Hotspot Shield what it is today?

DG: The inspiration was to enable users around the world with a free and easy way to protect their privacy on the web and to disrupt any kind of restrictions on access to information.

We address a global market of 1.5 billion internet users and 600 million of them live in highly censored places and don’t have access to basic news and social networking sites. We’re an enabler for these users to access sites like Skype, Facebook, YouTube, Google, and other censored content originating from the EU and US.

Another 800 million Internet users turn to consumer security products to secure their computers and mobile devices, but don’t have a solution that secures their browsing session – and this is the exactly problem that Hotspot Shield solves. Addressing these two global needs for such a huge market is personally rewarding, as we are both running a fast growing business and changing the world for the better.

NM: How did the Middle East uprisings affect your user base? Did you envision it playing a significant role in what we have seen unfold in the region in this past year?

DG: The Arab Spring, as well as any events that effect privacy or access, create a large spike of traffic to Hotspot Shield. These users look to us as a solution that is always on their side as we protect personal privacy, enable online freedom and securing web browsing.

NM: How does Hotspot Shield use compare in the Middle East to other regions?

DG: We have users in 100 countries and the Middle East is certainly an important region for Hotspot Shield because there is a vast need for secure, online browsing and access. Hotspot Shield is a household name in many Middle Eastern countries because it lets people access their preferred content. The region is not only a hotbed of social revolution; it is also home for US and UK expats. This group views Hotspot Shield as the main connection point to their domestic content and their preferred Internet destinations.

NM: You’ve collected a lot of data on how it’s being used in these countries – what kind of insight has that given you into the way Hotspot Shield  is being used in the Middle East? And in general?

DG: We don’t collect the individual, personal data from users. Instead, we aggregate our user data so that we can spot trends and see events – and often times we’re able to do so before they hit the mainstream press. For instance, if Egyptian traffic were to have a sudden spike, it’s likely that there was an uprising, and if there was a bump in US traffic, it’s possible that Facebook’s privacy practices may have updated.

NM: Could you also give us an idea of how Hotspot Shield is being used in China.

DG: Primarily expats and travelers use Hotspot Shield in China so that they can access content from their native countries. Since it is available for the Chinese to use, it is also used as a secure path to visit Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other US and EU content that is otherwise censored. It is this slice of the Chinese population that sees us as a major gateway for accessing US and EU content.

NM: How do you combat the fact that users could use Hotspot Shield for less than noble reasons, or to access sites that have been restricted to US use only such as Pandora and Hulu?

DG: Since we have an aggregate view of the domains that are visited through Hotspot Shield, we can block malicious sites from our users. We haven’t seen much around restricted sites like Pandora or Hulu. Our traffic for these sites tends to be smaller as compared to blocked sites like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Google.

NM: How do you ensure that the data that you collect or any data that the program generates, can’t be used against users by governments? We saw RIM cooperate with the UK government this year – how do you ensure that the same can’t be asked of AnchorFree?

DG: Our technology works in a way that when users connect to Hotspot Shield, their IP address – which is tied to their identity – is thrown out on the fly and an AnchorFree IP address is assigned. This ensures that the user becomes completely private to third parties and to us. We do not collect or store any personal information of users.

NM: What precautions do you take to ensure that users can still use the service if the Hotspot Shield site is blocked in their country?

DG: We have set up multiple ways for users to get the Hotspot Shield file. One way is an email auto-responder, where users can send an email to [email protected] (for Windows) or [email protected] (for Mac) and get the Hotspot Shield file by email. Other ways include users sharing the file with each other and uploading it to dozens of different websites.

NM: Any plans for changes or developments at Hotspot Shield?

DG: We are working on a mobile version, that will launch soon.

NM: Is there any advice you would give to activists when it comes to combating censorship?

DG: I would advise activists to look at technologies for help in spreading their information, building their community, and getting access to uncensored content. We live in a digital world, and their ability to communicate with the masses is a crucial component to driving their cause.

NM: Anything else you want to add?

DG: I would like to advise potential entrepreneurs that are looking to start a new businesses to consider starting a company that goes beyond just making money and think about ways to enable social change. Making money is great, but it is not enough.

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