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The 6 Best Free VPN Providers – TechEye

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Free VPNs have a bit of a negative connotation, especially in comparison to paid platforms. Many free VPNs are plagued with constant advertisements, and many more aren’t very secure or privacy-focused since they collect and sell your data to third-party advertisers in order to make money.

However, not all free VPNs are complete wastes of time. In fact, some free VPN platforms are quite good, especially when you take their features into account and remember that they don’t cost anything to use.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at the best free VPNs for all users and see whether they’re worth the hassle of a download.

Want to jump straight to the answer? The best free VPN for most people is Hotspot Shield.

Why Choose a Free VPN?

The most obvious reason to target a free virtual private network instead of a paid VPN, like NordVPN, is the price difference. After all, if you could get free anonymity as you browse the Internet or access restricted content that your government doesn’t normally allow, all without spending a penny, wouldn’t you?

While this sounds like a great deal on the surface, there are some issues with free VPNs you should be aware of before downloading one.

For starters, remember that all VPN companies have to turn a profit in some way. If they offer their VPN services for free, that usually means that they are collecting something else from you – like your data. In fact, many of the best free VPNs will sell their users’ data to third parties in order to turn a profit.

This somewhat defeats the purpose of browsing anonymously and stands in stark contrast to many peoples’ reasons for turning to VPNs in the first place. Furthermore, many free VPNs will include data caps or otherwise limit the amount of stuff you can download or browse. This means that some free VPN services aren’t great for streaming video or torrenting: two popular activities that take up the majority of private downloading time for free VPN users.

Free VPNs also normally suffer when it comes to customer support or extra features. Many of these services are necessarily bare bones since their operators aren’t very profitable compared to their paid counterparts.

This doesn’t mean that free VPNs aren’t worth your time. It just helps to know what you’re getting into. Don’t download a free VPN service expecting the best of the best or unlimited bandwidth. Instead, use free VPNs as limited and temporary tools.

It’s often great to use a free VPN to see if it actually works for your needs before purchasing a paid tier of service. Or you use a free VPN for a very minor or brief foray into private browsing – for instance, maybe you really want to unblock an episode of a TV show that is geographically limited in your country, and don’t want to use the VPN beyond seeing that episode. Free VPNs are also useful for adding some protection while you browse on public wifi: a dangerous gambit at best.

Additionally, free VPNs can vary dramatically from the best to the worst. Keep reading if you want to see the top free VPNs available instead of scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel.


The 6 Best Free VPN Providers (2020)

1. Hotspot Shield Free VPN

Hotspot Shield Free VPN is a phenomenal example of a free VPN service. There’s a lot to like right out of the digital box, including a 500 MB daily data allowance. This isn’t enough to watch tons of YouTube or stream a lot of television, but it’s great for general browsing and downloading some pictures. Since the limit refreshes daily, you may never feel the real restrictions of this cap. This limit is also fairly generous compared to many of the other free VPNs on the market.

Hotspot Shield Free VPN also offers military-grade encryption for users’ security. What this actually means is kept somewhat secret, as the Hotspot Shield Free VPN site only offers generalities. Still, it does assure users that their data will be safe from government snooping or from malicious hackers or malware. It’s also one of the fastest VPNs you can get for free.

Most users will appreciate that Hotspot Shield Free VPN is very easy to use and features an intuitive interface. You can access the VPN features via mobile devices, like an iPhone or Android phone, or your Mac or Windows desktops, and either way, you’ll be able to start browsing anonymously or from different IP addresses quickly and smoothly.

Hotspot Shield Free only offers a single US-based VPN server for connecting to, however, which is very limited compared to the 70+ countries you can choose from with the paid version.

One other thing to note is that all Android users will have to put up with ads. Even with these minor downsides, Hotspot Shield Free VPN offers a lot to like and is one of the most generous free VPN services you can find.

Key Features:

  • 500 MB daily cap
  • Intuitive user interface
  • Anchors users to a single US-based location
  • Support for all major platforms/OS

Hotspot Shield

Hotspot Shield Free VPN is a phenomenal example of a free VPN service.


2. TunnelBear

Many folks have heard of TunnelBear, and for good reason; it’s one of the most user-friendly free VPN services on the market. This is bolstered by its colorful and simplistic design, which can help set your mind at ease if you are just getting into using a VPN for the first time. TunnelBear unfortunately has a cap of 500 MB per month. This is a serious limitation and means you should only use the free version of TunnelBear for brief browsing activities or when you must be anonymous on short notice.

This also means TunnelBear is a poor choice for streaming and torrenting Netflix or other media, as you’ll blow through that monthly allowance pretty quickly. The good news is that TunnelBear only collects the bare minimum of data from its users, so you don’t have to worry too much about your data being exploited by third-party advertisers. You don’t even have to supply your first name when you sign up.

TunnelBear offers desktop and mobile clients for all users, and both run very well. They also offer a plethora of anchor locations, both domestically and internationally. Ultimately, we’d only recommend using TunnelBear if you only need to rely on a free VPN once in a while.

Key Features:

  • 500 MB monthly data cap
  • Has both mobile and desktop interfaces
  • Interface is intuitive and user-friendly
  • Doesn’t collect a ton of user data

TunnelBear

Many folks have heard of TunnelBear, and for good reason; it’s one of the most user-friendly free VPN services on the market.


3. ProtonVPN Free

ProtonVPN Free is most distinguished from other free VPN providers by a lack of data restrictions. That’s right – you can use this free VPN app as much as you want, making it the prime choice for streaming and torrenting to your heart’s content. Unlimited free data is incredibly rare for any free VPN provider to offer, so consider it if you want to use a VPN for the above activities more than anything else.

However, there are some restrictions. You can only use ProtonVPN Free on a single device, and there are only three anchor locations. Furthermore, all free users have lower data download priority compared to any of the paying subscribers, so you may see spikes and dips in your data download speeds.

But they also don’t log your online activity, so you won’t have too much data scooped for use by third-party advertising companies. You only need to supply your email address to sign up. We also like that there aren’t any incessant advertisements to sit through.

All in all, it’s a fantastic free VPN with advantages that help to offset many of the traditional downsides to using these affordable services. If you can stomach slow download speeds from time to time, ProtonVPN Free is a great choice.

Key Features:

  • No data cap
  • 3 anchor locations
  • Only use it on one device
  • Paid users get traffic priority

ProtonVPN Free

ProtonVPN Free is most distinguished from other free VPN providers by a lack of data restrictions.


4. Windscribe

Windscribe is one of the few free VPN services that are available for Linux, but it’s also noteworthy since it offers a relatively high data download limit of 10 GB per month. This is much higher than TunnelBear’s. To make things even better, Windscribe offers 10 anchor locations, including several in international locations like Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and Hong Kong.

They’re most notable, however, for their excellent privacy policy. They don’t store any VPN connection logs, site visits, or IP address stamps. It does store your username and how much data you transfer, but even that stuff is erased after three minutes upon ending your session. There’s even an ad blocker and firewall built into the software.

Thus, you don’t have to worry about your data being surreptitiously gathered and used against you at any point. The downside is that traffic speeds are notoriously inconsistent. While this can be a decent pick for torrenting or streaming services, it’s far from the most reliable on the market. All in all, it’s a good free VPN service for those concerned about privacy more than anything else.

Key Features:

  • 10 GB data cap
  • Excellent online privacy policy
  • Works for Linux, Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android
  • Inconsistent download speeds

Windscribe

Windscribe is one of the few free VPN services that are available for Linux, but it’s also noteworthy since it offers a relatively high data download limit of 10 GB per month.


5. Speedify

Speedify, as befitting its name, is a pretty fast VPN for general browsing and small file downloads. You get a 2 GB per month data limit, which is low but not as restrictive as TunnelBear. It boosts regular browsing speed by using the best available Internet connections based on your anchor point. It also uses “turbocharging” technology to improve this even further, though the technical specifics are a bit hard to determine.

Regardless, the free version of this VPN offers high speeds due to some choice servers in their collection. You’re still limited by your data cap, of course. Interesting, Speedify isn’t a great choice if you want to stream – this is partially because of the data cap, but there’s something about its servers that makes it uniquely bad for transferring streaming data from server to server.

Speedify is also pretty solid when it comes to privacy, though Windscribe is a bit better on that front as well. Ultimately, Speedify is a great choice if you mostly want to use a VPN for private browsing and aren’t concerned with torrenting or streaming shows from other countries.

Key Features:

  • Fast browsing speeds
  • Good privacy settings
  • Bad for streaming
  • 2 GB per month limit

Speedify

Speedify, as befitting its name, is a pretty fast VPN for general browsing and small file downloads.


6. Hide.me

Hide.me, as the name suggests, is a free VPN largely concerned with offering its users fantastic privacy and totally anonymous browsing. You get 2 GB of data per month to use with the free plan, and there are other limitations like device limits (one maximum) and a low number of server locations (only five between the US and Canada). However, they never throttle your connection speed and, most importantly, Hide.me doesn’t store user logs or data, nor does it pass any of that onto third parties.

Even better, there aren’t any advertisements to suffer through at any point. Hide.me’s client, regardless of the operating system you use, is slick and smooth, and they offer 24/7 technical support for all their users, even free ones.

It’s best to think of Hide.me as the ideal choice if you don’t want your data to be sent to any advertising agency period. There are better free VPN options in terms of download limits and anchor server options, but few do privacy and anonymity better than Hide.me.

Key Features:

  • Very good privacy policy
  • No ads to sit through
  • 24/7 technical support
  • 2 GB of data per month

Hide.me

Hide.me, as the name suggests, is a free VPN largely concerned with offering its users fantastic privacy and totally anonymous browsing.


How to Choose the Best Free VPN for Your Privacy Needs

Finding a handful of great free VPN’s is one thing – determining the best free VPN for your unique privacy or downloading needs is another. Let’s focus on the aspects you should consider as you select your free VPN.

Why Do You Need a Free VPN?

The first thing to think about is why you want to use a free VPN in the first place. Generally speaking, people use VPNs for one of three reasons:

  • To browse the Internet semi-anonymously
  • To download and/or stream shows and other media they can’t access due to geographic restrictions for their home IP address
  • To enjoy better browsing security against hackers

More private internet access is becoming more popular, through unblocking streaming is also quite important for most users. Each of these reasons is perfectly valid, and neither is more important than another. However, they each require different things from a VPN provider.

For instance, some free VPNs prioritize anonymity and use special channels or servers that are excellent at allowing their users to browse anonymously. They’ll also prioritize things like data log deletion, or even refuse to gather data logs and other privacy information from their users. Instead, they may use advertisements or other methods of generating revenue. Hide.me does this very well.

Some VPNs are better for streaming and usually come without data caps. That’s because streaming and media downloads can quickly run up a data limit. You’ll want to prioritize VPNs like ProtonVPN if this is what you’re interested in.

Still more VPNs are excellent in terms of security and are good choices if you suspect that your identity is at risk or you don’t want to be hacked when visiting a sketchy website. Hotspot Shield VPN is a good example of one of these services.

In short, figure out why you want to use a VPN and you can find the best free VPN for that purpose from the list above.

Does the VPN Have a Paid Version?

It’s also smart to see whether a given free VPN has a paid version you can upgrade to in the future. While you may not want to pay money for extra features or better bandwidth limits right now, you might come into more money later and decide to go through with an upgrade.

It’s often easier to upgrade within the same VPN provider that it is to switch providers outright. Thus, check to see whether a free VPN only comes as a free version or if there’s a better premium service available you can take advantage of later. Some premium VPNs have a 30-day money-back guarantee – this is almost as good as free VPN if you remember your time limit to spare your credit card.

Performance and User-Friendliness

Naturally, the user interface and performance quality of a given free VPN can impact how well you enjoy using the software or platform. Some VPNs, like Hotspot Shield Free VPN, have particularly slick user interfaces that are easy for beginners to grasp and fully take advantage of. Hotspot also has excellent performance rankings across the board, so you shouldn’t experience too much lag or sputtering, even when watching your favorite media.

Performance is most important if you want to stream or download media frequently. Nothing ruins a good show like rendering or buffering every few seconds. Most of the VPN services that have high data download limits also have good performance specifically for this reason, while others, like Speedify, aren’t very good in terms of streaming performance and are better for general but anonymous browsing.

Available Servers

The available servers or anchor points that a given free VPN offers essentially determines which places you can disguise your IP address as coming from. More servers mean more opportunities to find smooth connections to the servers you are trying to reach, and a better overall traffic load.

For instance, if a free VPN only has a single server for its free users, you can expect lots of buffering or poor performance since all the free users will be clogging that server, trying to download stuff or browse the Internet.

Multiple available servers are also important if you want to download or torrent media that is outlawed in your home country. Services like TunnelBear are great for this, offering a plethora of foreign servers so there’s almost always a place available where you can access and download media without too much trouble.

If you’re just interested in regular anonymous browsing, server variety isn’t quite as important.

Browser Extensions

Some VPNs offer browser extensions, which allow you to combine the VPN’s services with some kinds of browsers. Browsers like Chrome, Explorer, and Edge are notorious for collecting user data, while others, like Firefox, don’t need a VPN as much thanks to their user-friendly data logging policies.

Privacy Policies

As mentioned earlier, many of the best free VPN services turn a profit by selling the browsing or log data of their users. If this is something you don’t want to happen to you, focus on a free VPN like Hide.me, which doesn’t log data from its users and doesn’t sell any data to third-party advertising or marketing companies.

This can be important if you’re committed to lowering your digital presence on the web, or if you just don’t like the idea of your activity being tracked by any organization, whether it’s government or private. On the flip side, if you only want to avoid being easily hacked or you just want to download media from another country, privacy may not be quite as important and you can focus on other issues.

Security

The last big thing to keep in mind is security. This most important if you want to use a free VPN to lower the likelihood of attracting a hacker or identity thief as you browse a sketchy website. Some services, like Hotspot Shield Free VPN, are particularly good on this point, while others don’t put as much of a priority on it.


Takeaway

Ultimately, Hotspot Shield Free VPN is the best of the bunch thanks to its excellent security, intuitive user interface, and relatively generous daily data limit of 500 MB per day.

However, readers might also appreciate Proton VPN Free, which offers unlimited data transfer all without costing a penny. Others might want Hide.me, which is the best of the best when it comes to total privacy and protecting its users’ personal data and personal information. There are plenty of other VPNs we haven’t even mentioned, including OpenVPN, ExpressVPN, SurfShark,

The great news is that you can try any and all of these services as much as you like since you don’t have to put any money down upfront. Give them a shot and let us know what you think!




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Google deliberately throttled ad load times to promote AMP, claims new court document • The Register

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More detail has emerged from a 173-page complaint filed last week in the lawsuit brought against Google by a number of US states, including allegations that Google deliberately throttled advertisements not served to its AMP (Accelerated Mobile) pages.

The lawsuit – as we explained at the end of last week – was originally filed in December 2020 and concerns alleged anti-competitive practice in digital advertising. The latest document, filed on Friday, makes fresh claims alleging ad-throttling around AMP.

Google introduced AMP in 2015, with the stated purpose of accelerating mobile web pages. An AMP page is a second version of a web page using AMP components and restricted JavaScript, and is usually served via Google’s content delivery network. Until 2018, the AMP project, although open source, had as part of its governance a BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life), this being Google’s Malte Ubl, the technical lead for AMP.

In 2018, Ubl posted that this changed “from a single Tech lead to a Technical Steering Committee”. The TSC sets its own membership and has a stated goal of “no more than 1/3 of the TSC from one employer”, though currently has nine members, of whom four are from Google, including operating director Joey Rozier.

According to the Friday court filing, representing the second amended complaint [PDF] from the plaintiffs, “Google ad server employees met with AMP employees to strategize about using AMP to impede header bidding.” Header bidding, as described in our earlier coverage, enabled publishers to offer ad space to multiple ad exchanges, rather than exclusively to Google’s ad exchange. The suit alleges that AMP limited the compatibility with header bidding to just “a few exchanges,” and “routed rival exchange bids through Google’s ad server so that Google could continue to peek at their bids and trade on inside information”.

The lawsuit also states that Google’s claims of faster performance for AMP pages “were not true for publishers that designed their web pages for speed”.

A more serious claim is that: “Google throttles the load time of non-AMP ads by giving them artificial one-second delays in order to give Google AMP a ‘nice comparative boost’. Throttling non-AMP ads slows down header bidding, which Google then uses to denigrate header bidding for being too slow.”

The document goes on to allege that: “Internally, Google employees grappled with ‘how to [publicly] justify [Google] making something slower’.”

Google promoted AMP in part by ranking non-AMP pages below AMP pages in search results, and featuring a “Search AMP Carousel” specifically for AMP content. This presented what the complaint claims was a “Faustian bargain,” where “(1) publishers who used header bidding would see the traffic to their site drop precipitously from Google suppressing their ranking in search and re-directing traffic to AMP-compatible publishers; or (2) publishers could adopt AMP pages to maintain traffic flow but forgo exchange competition in header bidding, which would make them more money on an impression-by-impression basis.”

The complaint further alleges that “According to Google’s internal documents, [publishers made] 40 per cent less revenue on AMP pages.”

A brief history of AMP

AMP was controversial from its first inception. In 2017 developer Jeremy Keith described AMP as deceptive, drawing defensive remarks from Ubl. Keith later joined the AMP advisory committee, but resigned in August saying that “I can’t in good faith continue to advise on the AMP project for the OpenJS Foundation when it has become clear to me that AMP remains a Google product, with only a subset of pieces that could even be considered open source.”

One complaint is that the AMP specification requires a link to Google-hosted JavaScript.

In May 2020 Google stated it would “remove the AMP requirement from Top Stories eligibility”.

This was confirmed in April 2021, when Google posted about an update to its “page experience” whereby “the Top Stories carousel feature on Google Search will be updated to include all news content, as long as it meets the Google News policies. This means that using the AMP format is no longer required.” In addition, “we will no longer show the AMP badge icon to indicate AMP content.” Finally, Google Search signed exchanges, which pre-fetches content to speed page rendering on sites which support the feature, was extended to all web pages where it was previously restricted to AMP pages.

This is evidence that Google is pulling back from its promotion of AMP, though it also said that “Google continues to support AMP”.

As for the complaint, it alleges that Google has an inherent conflict of interest. According to the filing: “Google was able to demand that it represent the buy-side (i.e., advertisers), where it extracted one fee, as well as the sell-side (i.e., publishers), where it extracted a second fee, and it was also able to force transactions to clear in its exchange, where it extracted a third, even larger, fee.”

The company also has more influence than any other on web standards, thanks to the dominant Chrome browser and Chromium browser engine, and on mobile technology, thanks to Android.

That Google would devise a standard from which it benefited is not surprising, but the allegation of deliberately delaying ads on other formats in order to promote it is disturbing and we have asked the company to comment. ®

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What is COP26 and what can we expect from climate talks?

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Shelley Inglis from the University of Dayton explains how global climate negotiations work and what’s expected from the upcoming Glasgow summit.

Click here to visit The Conversation.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Over two weeks in November, world leaders and national negotiators will meet in Scotland to discuss what to do about the climate crisis. It’s a complex process that can be hard to make sense of from the outside, but it’s how international law and institutions help solve problems that no single country can fix on its own.

I worked for the United Nations for several years as a law and policy adviser and have been involved in international negotiations. Here’s what’s happening behind closed doors and why people are concerned that COP26 might not meet its goals.

What is COP26?

In 1992, countries agreed to an international treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which set ground rules and expectations for global cooperation on combating climate change. It was the first time the majority of nations formally recognised the need to control greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming that drives climate change.

That treaty has since been updated, including in 2015 when nations signed the Paris climate agreement. That agreement set the goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to avoid catastrophic climate change.

COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC. The “parties” are the 196 countries that ratified the treaty, plus the European Union. The UK, partnering with Italy, is hosting COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, from 31 October to 12 November 2021, after a one-year postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Why are world leaders so focused on the climate crisis?

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, released in August 2021, warns in its strongest terms yet that human activities have unequivocally warmed the planet, and that climate change is now widespread, rapid and intensifying.

The IPCC’s scientists explain how climate change has been fuelling extreme weather events and flooding, severe heat waves and droughts, loss and extinction of species, and the melting of ice sheets and rising of sea levels. UN secretary-general António Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity.”

Enough greenhouse gas emissions are already in the atmosphere, and they stay there long enough, that even under the most ambitious scenario of countries quickly reducing their emissions, the world will experience rising temperatures through at least mid-century.

However, there remains a narrow window of opportunity. If countries can cut global emissions to “net zero” by 2050, that could bring warming back to under 1.5 degrees Celsius in the second half of the 21st century. How to get closer to that course is what leaders and negotiators are discussing.

What happens at COP26?

During the first days of the conference, around 120 heads of state, like US president Joe Biden, and their representatives will gather to demonstrate their political commitment to slowing climate change.

Once the heads of state depart, country delegations, often led by ministers of environment, engage in days of negotiations, events and exchanges to adopt their positions, make new pledges and join new initiatives. These interactions are based on months of prior discussions, policy papers and proposals prepared by groups of states, UN staff and other experts.

Non-governmental organisations and business leaders also attend the conference, and COP26 has a public side with sessions focused on topics such as the impact of climate change on small island states, forests or agriculture, as well as exhibitions and other events.

The meeting ends with an outcome text that all countries agree to. Guterres publicly expressed disappointment with the COP25 outcome, and there are signs of trouble heading into COP26.

What is COP26 expected to accomplish?

Countries are required under the Paris Agreement to update their national climate action plans every five years, including at COP26. This year, they’re expected to have ambitious targets through 2030. These are known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs.

The Paris Agreement requires countries to report their NDCs, but it allows them leeway in determining how they reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The initial set of emission reduction targets in 2015 was far too weak to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

One key goal of COP26 is to ratchet up these targets to reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.

Another aim of COP26 is to increase climate finance to help poorer countries transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change. This is an important issue of justice for many developing countries whose people bear the largest burden from climate change but have contributed least to it.

Wealthy countries promised in 2009 to contribute $100bn a year by 2020 to help developing nations, a goal that has not been reached. The US, UK and EU, among the largest historic greenhouse emitters, are increasing their financial commitments, and banks, businesses, insurers and private investors are being asked to do more.

Other objectives include phasing out coal use and generating solutions that preserve, restore or regenerate natural carbon sinks, such as forests.

Another challenge that has derailed past COPs is agreeing on implementing a carbon trading system outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Are countries on track to meet international climate goals?

The UN warned in September 2021 that countries’ revised targets were too weak and would leave the world on pace to warm 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. However, governments are also facing another challenge that could affect how they respond: energy supply shortages have left Europe and China with price spikes for natural gas, coal and oil.

China – the world’s largest emitter – has not yet submitted its NDC. Major fossil fuel producers such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia seem unwilling to strengthen their commitments. India – a critical player as the second-largest consumer, producer and importer of coal globally – has also not yet committed.

Other developing nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and Mexico are important. So is Brazil, which, under Jair Bolsonaro’s watch, has increased deforestation of the Amazon – the world’s largest rainforest and crucial for biodiversity and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

What happens if COP26 doesn’t meet its goals?

Many insiders believe that COP26 won’t reach its goal of having strong enough commitments from countries to cut global greenhouse gas emissions 45pc by 2030. That means the world won’t be on a smooth course for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and the goal of keeping warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But organisers maintain that keeping warming under 1.5 degrees is still possible. Former US secretary of state John Kerry, who has been leading the US negotiations, remains hopeful that enough countries will create momentum for others to strengthen their reduction targets by 2025.

The cost of failure is astronomical. Studies have shown that the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius can mean the submersion of small island states, the death of coral reefs, extreme heat waves, flooding and wildfires, and pervasive crop failure.

That translates into many premature deaths, more mass migration, major economic losses, large swathes of unliveable land and violent conflict over resources and food – what the UN secretary-general has called “a hellish future.”

The Conversation

By Shelley Inglis

Shelley Inglis is executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton in Ohio. She is a research professor of human rights and law, and previously held various management positions with the United Nations Development Programme.

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Ransomware attacks in UK have doubled in a year, says GCHQ boss | GCHQ

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The head of the UK spy agency GCHQ has disclosed that the number of ransomware attacks on British institutions has doubled in the past year.

Jeremy Fleming, the director of GCHQ, said locking files and data on a user’s computer and demanding payment for their release had become increasingly popular among criminals because it was “largely uncontested” and highly profitable.

His comments, made on Monday to the Cipher Brief annual threat conference, follow warnings that Russia and China are harbouring criminal gangs that are successfully targeting western governments or firms.

“I think that the reason [ransomware] is proliferating – we’ve seen twice as many attacks this year as last year in the UK – is because it works. It just pays. Criminals are making very good money from it and are often feeling that that’s largely uncontested,” he told delegates.

GCHQ has declined to give the exact numbers of ransomware attacks recorded in the UK this year or last. However, a US Treasury report released this month disclosed that suspicious ransomware-related transactions in the US over the first six months of this year were worth around $590m. The top 10 hacking groups believed to be behind criminal activity had moved about $5.2bn worth of bitcoin over the past three years, the report claimed.

Amid growing concerns over China and Russia’s ties to ransomware gangs, Fleming also called for more clarity over the links between criminals and hostile states.

“In the shorter term we’ve got to sort out ransomware, and that is no mean feat in itself. We have to be clear on the red lines and behaviours that we want to see, we’ve got to go after those links between criminal actors and state actors,” he said.

Ransomware is malware that employs encryption to hold a victim’s information at ransom. A user or organisation’s critical data is encrypted so that they cannot access files, databases, or applications. A ransom is then demanded to provide access. It has been used as part of a number of high-profile cyber-attacks in recent years, including the 2017 attack on the NHS.

Specialists believe Russian ransomware will continue to expand given the proliferation of cyber hacking tools and cryptocurrency payment channels.

Lindy Cameron, chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), said this month that ransomware “presents the most immediate danger” of all cyber threats faced by the UK, in a speech to the Chatham House thinktank.

In May this year, the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said states such as Russia could not “wave their hands” and say ransomware gangs operating from their territory had nothing to do with them.

Since then the west has sought to ramp up the pressure on the Kremlin. Joe Biden twice raised the issue with Vladimir Putin over the summer and he hinted that the US would be prepared to attack computer servers belonging to the gangs if nothing was done.

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