ExpressVPN at RightsCon 2023: Helping activists stay secure online

ExpressVPN news
3 mins
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VPNs have a big part to play in keeping activists safe online; journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders of all stripes use this software to avoid government attention. However, the best way to find out exactly what this group needs is to ask them. This year, ExpressVPN organized a workshop at RightsCon to do just that.

RightsCon is probably the most important event on any human rights activist’s social agenda. It’s held every year in a different location (this year it was San Jose, Costa Rica) and brings together people from all over that want to work together and create a better digital world. If you want to discuss how to stop corporations and governments from infringing on our online rights, RightsCon is the best place to do it. 

To help put the workshop together—and keep a few dozen fiery activists in line—we invited five experts, each with their own views on how civil society and tech can and should work together. To lead the activities, we had our very own Lauren Hendry Parsons, head of ExpressVPN’s global communications and all-round privacy advocate (speaking of fiery).

The other participants were Francesca Bosco, a senior strategist at the CyberPeace Institute, an NGO that strives to improve peaceful relations online; Rhona Tarrant, senior editor at Storyful, a social media newswire; and Fergus O’Sullivan, a freelance journalist who has written extensively about VPNs. Making up the final member of our quintet was the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s research lead, Shirin Mori. 

In the weeks leading up to RightsCon, the group met several times to figure out exactly what the session would be about. Eventually, we settled on two key questions: What issues are activists struggling with when it comes to their online safety, and what solutions do they propose to fix them? 

The result was surprising, to say the least. As a VPN company, we expected to hear mostly about the need for people to ward off surveillance and circumvent blocks, but that was only part of the issues our activists ran into on a daily basis. 

For example, U.S. activists dealing with police violence were mostly focused on how to keep the authorities from finding out organizers’ real identities through their social media. What also came up was how many people active in advocacy were, quite simply, terrified of their phones and the massive security risk they posed. 

The solutions participants came up with were just as diverse. While some people were perfectly served by the VPNs on the market right now—though a little extra encryption probably wouldn’t hurt—others expressed worry about what authorities could do to bust existing protection. After all, even the best VPN won’t help against spyware surreptitiously installed on your phone or someone stalking your mom’s Facebook page.

While some of the solutions involved high-tech fixes, many were actually low-tech or even no-tech. After all, improving encryption or VPN protocols won’t help if your device is physically inspected or the internet infrastructure in your country is completely shut off. 

Some of the most interesting involved creating entirely new, open-source phone operating systems, as well as securing in-person handoffs, like through using secure USB sticks to pass information along. Other ideas we heard were as varied as rerouting the web through analog means (like old radio or TV signals) and securing whistleblower protections through legislative avenues.

We learned and discovered a lot, much of it surprising, and over the next few weeks, we’ll be reporting in detail on everything that came up during the workshop, as well as getting in touch with any participants who left their contact details. If you’d like to be involved in the process, please contact us at and watch this space for further updates.

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