Crossroads Asia

Does Kazakhstan Want to Spy on Internet Traffic?

Astana might be gearing up to exert more control over the internet browsing of Kazakhs.

Does Kazakhstan Want to Spy on Internet Traffic?
Credit: man on computer via

For those interested in civil liberties in Kazakhstan, 2016 isn’t shaping up to be a great year. Not only does the government seem intent on pushing through a bill to restrict non-governmental organizations – carrying shades of the “anti-NGO” law passed in Russia just a few years ago – but it seems Astana will also be keeping a closer eye on what, and where, its citizens are browsing online.

Earlier this week Vice flagged a notification from Kazakhtelecom, Kazakhstan’s state-backed internet service provider. Come January, according to the release – which was promptly taken down two days after it went up – the government will require all telecom users to install a “national security certificate.” The release justified the certificate as a necessary measure to “secure protection of Kazakhstan users when using coded access protocols to foreign internet resources.” The chunky, convoluted language, per Vice, effectively means that “the certificate is targeting citizens’ access to encrypted services that rely on traffic being routed outside of Kazakhstan” – and that the government “will … attempt to spy on all encrypted internet traffic going in or out of the country[.]” A privacy advocate, Matthew Rice, termed the move a “brazen attempt to increase [the government’s] ability to control security over the internet in the country.”

This is hardly the first such restriction Kazakhstan has enacted on citizens’ internet usage in the country. Multiple websites – including, apparently, Vice – remain blocked. Likewise, “[s]elective content filtering is widely used, and second- and third-generation control strategies are evident” in Kazakhstan, per OpenNet Initiative. Kazakhstan received a “Not Free” rating from Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report this year – a downgrade from prior assessments. (Disclosure: I’ve worked with Freedom House in the past, but not on the Freedom of the Net reports.) As Freedom House found, “The state of internet freedom in Kazakhstan continues to decline,” pointing to blockage of independent media and reports critical of the government. Not all censorship is necessarily government-mandated, however: “The government has employed a set of technical and legislative measures to control content both directly and through the establishment of a pervasive atmosphere of self-censorship online.” This week’s release even comes cloaked in language of “protection” for the citizens of Kazakhstan – a common justification the government has used when justifying its choice to block certain content.

This new implementation of the certificate – a “bold attack on net freedom,” wrote Vice – is but the latest move in a trend of restriction and monitoring when it comes to allowing citizens internet access. Kazakhstan is by no means the lone Central Asian nation hardening its tech-based restrictions and monitoring – see Tajikistan’s plans to register all SIM cards, for instance – but the move, unexpected as it was, sets the pace for continued clampdowns as 2016 spins closer.