The decentralized virtual private network (VPN) Mysterium is seeing an increase in users in Nigeria over the last few weeks as protests have roiled the African country.
Nigerians are protesting police corruption and specifically calling for the end to the special anti-robbery squad (SARS). In 2017, following protests, the government supposedly disbanded the police unit. But early in October, as reports emerged of SARS allegedly killing a young boy, protesters have again taken to the streets.
As CoinDesk’s Sandali Handagama wrote in October, “the police unit stands accused of illegal killings, extortion and torture of innocent civilians. Many of its victims over the years were young men between the ages of 18 and 35.”
The user increase seen by Mysterium comes at a time when concerns over a partial shutdown of the internet in Nigeria has given rise to more interest in VPNs overall. After government security forces opened fire on unarmed protestors in Lagos on Oct. 20, killing 12, VPN searches in Nigeria went up 239% compared to the previous 30 days, according to digital research firm Top 10 VPN.
A VPN lets its users create a secure connection to another network and is often used to access restricted websites and content, shield their browsing activity from public WiFi and provide a degree of anonymity by hiding their locations.
ISPs (internet service providers) can see all browsing history of its users, according to Mysterium Product Head Jaro Satkevic. This may allow oppressive governments to either censor internet access or punish some citizens for political reasons. VPNs encrypt all the traffic and hide any information from ISPs. They also hide the user’s IP address from websites he or she is browsing.
“I first discovered Mysterium on airdrop.io, was curious and read about the project. Before then I used other conventional VPN,” said Ian, a Nigerian man who has supported the #EndSars protests online and in person. (“Ian” is a pseudonym. He asked to remain anonymous for his safety.)
“I believe VPN use has increased in part due to the #EndSARS protest. Recently, more people saw the need to use VPN in Nigeria for safety on social media, Twitter especially.”
Mysterium is a decentralized VPN, meaning it’s not controlled by a central company. As Top 10 VPN has regularly reported, nearly three-quarters of free VPNs on the market have some level of vulnerability, share or expose customer data, or even contain malware.
Mysterium’s decentralized architecture means that, by design, it cannot log users’ activity, and is resistant to being shut down. The more nodes that join, the faster, stronger and more censorship-resistant it becomes.
“The biggest issue of centralized VPN companies is that they can also collect logs of their consumer browsing history,” said Satkevic. “Most of them have a ‘no-logs policy’ but it is really hard to recheck, and there are many stories when hackers got access into user browsing logs collected by VPN companies.”
Technically, it is relatively easy to detect that traffic is coming from a VPN server because they’re hosted at a datacenter, according to Satkevic. In the Mysterium network though, most of the exit nodes are residential (hosted by people in their homes), which makes it much harder to detect. This allows users to get access to a bigger array of geoblocked services.
Since the exit nodes are hosted by a decentralized community it’s not possible for one centralized authority to hold users browsing history.
“On top of that, in Mysterium we’re using P2P [peer-to-peer] crypto payments (using payment channels) which adds an additional privacy layer,” said Satkevic. “The Mysterium team has no information on our consumers (no names, no email, no credit card information).”
Their payment model is pay-as-you-go in crypto VPN, where you essentially rent someone else’s IP address for whatever rate they choose to charge. So, for example, a U.S. resident could rent out their home IP address to someone in Iran. They could even choose to do so for free.
Mysterium emphasizes that due to its pay-as-you-go structure there are no lock-in fees, contracts or subscriptions associated with it.
Mysterium’s native token is MYST. As a dapp, Mysterium needed a token, and while the company originally allowed people to pay in ether, they had to switch plans as ETH’s transaction fees rose. At the time of writing, CoinGecko lists MYST at about $0.11.
Right now, while Mysterium is running on a test net, it’s free. The company is battle testing the code in real-world environments and configurations, giving away MYSTT (testnet tokens) to users, and also paying out bounties to node providers with real MYST.
Savannah Lee, a communications manager at Mysterium, said the main payment mechanism in the core network will be crypto P2P, using a pay-as-you-go model.
“But Mysterium is open source, so anyone is invited to create their own commercial application on top of it,” said Lee. “This was done by Portals Network, who accepts credit card payments and even provides a subscription-based service.”
Lee said Mysterium was ready to deploy its P2P infrastructure on the Ethereum mainnet, but due to the crazy-high transaction fees it needed to move from a L2 to an L3 solution. A solution is in development, according to Lee, with the goal being to have P2P payments live onthe Ethereum mainnet or some of its sidechains by the end of the year.
In the meantime, Mysterium has been working to attract users, targeting groups of people who have limited internet access in their countries.
Before the #EndSARS protests, it had increased user activity in places like Pakistan and India. In recent months, India has banned various apps from the country and placed other restrictive measures on the internet.
Ian said he uses Mysterium to give himself a degree of anonymity online. As a data analyst, he said he has an idea of how easy it is to get people’s information and personal data on the internet.
He was drawn to Mysterium because he’s enthusiastic about blockchain technology in general.
“I have read about a lot of other projects and adopted some I found valuable,” he said. “Knowing that I can pay for a VPN service using a utility token and stay secure online made me interested in Mysterium, so I decided to give it a try.”
Gabriel Olatunji came to Mysterium in a more streamlined way – to watch one of his favorite shows that was not available in Nigeria, “The Tudors.” He moved over from another VPN after he found it was blocking certain IPs.
“Initially, there were issues with the service, especially random disconnections, but the issues have been resolved with the new updates,” he said. “I found MysteriumVPN because of Netflix, but rising concerns of a possible internet regulation made me use the product more.”
Olatunji sees the increase in VPN use as directly linked to the #EndSARS protests, in part because since the onset of protests there have been concerns the government would “pull the plug” on parts of the internet. Even prior to the protests there was talk of a bill to regulate social media, which he said was apparently “aimed at suppressing the voice of the masses.” At that time, VPNs were seen as a way to protect against the impact of the prospective bill had it been passed.
“The government in Nigeria sees social media as a threat that challenges their dubious acts,” he said. “The #EndSARS protest started on Twitter, and people were attacked, arrested and had their human rights violated for protesting on Twitter. The government threatened to shut down social media because obviously they saw it as a threat. The CEO of Twitter was sued for actively supporting the #EndSARS protest. That’s when people saw the need to have VPNs for privacy and security.”
He, too, has taken part in the protests.
“Although I have never been a SARS victim, one of my dad’s friends was framed for an offence he didn’t commit and money was extorted from his family before he was released,” said Olatunji.
This experience, and seeing other experiences shared on social media, encouraged him to get involved.
Considered a tech hub with a young population and a rising aptitude for cryptocurrencies, countries like Nigeria are the kinds of areas Mysterium wants to support, and where it sees itself as a useful tool.
“There are a lot of decentralized VPNs out there, and we’re all trying to work together or work on the same kind of solutions,” said Lee. “But I think the thing about Mysterium is we’re very much research and community driven. So we really do want to reach people in places like Nigeria, where people have cryptocurrency already, because we think that these people are already ahead of the curve when it comes to tech.”