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Humanizing Digital Security to Empower Users

Netherlands-based cybersecurity company Surfshark develops security and privacy solutions to help users gain full control over their digital lives. Educating consumers to use cybersecurity tools optimally is one of its core missions. In 2020, to join forces with others working to protect the open Internet and make it a safer place for all, Surfshark became an Internet Society member.

A Conversation with Gabrielė

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Speaking from one of Surfshark’s offices in Vilnius, Lithuania, Gabrielė explained the company’s beginnings, what sets it apart from other virtual private network (VPN) providers, what it’s doing to stand up against alarming trends in the global cyber village, and how it has worked with the Internet Society to have a bigger impact.

With offices in four countries (the Netherlands, Lithuania, Germany, and Poland), over 300 employees, and more than 12.4 million app downloads, not to mention some 30 industry awards, Surfshark is one of the world’s leading cybersecurity firms. In line with its dream of “a world where people have full control of their digital lives,” Surfshark develops tools and provides information designed to empower users across the globe to more safely navigate the cyber threat-laden waters of the Internet.

Its beginnings were somewhat humbler. When Chief Executive Officer Vytautas Kaziukonis founded it in 2018, Surfshark’s only offering was browser extensions, and it struggled to forge an identity for itself in the cybersecurity landscape. “We were like the new kid on the block, trying to find our way among the others,” says Gabrielė. “The industry was also quite different back then. It was highly technical, and there wasn’t much difference between us and our competition. It’s like we were all just mimicking each other without being distinctive.”

Gabrielė Račaitytė-Krasauskė, Head of Public Relations

Four years ago, after working in public relations (PR) in retail and other industries, Gabrielė joined the Surfshark team as PR manager. Having studied politics, she already knew something about Internet censorship but hadn’t realized the issue’s full scope. “I was appalled, especially after learning about the restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir,” she says. “These topics just grew on me, and I took an interest on a personal level. I felt motivated to learn everything I could and help spread the word about these restrictions from our point of view.” Today, as head of PR, Gabrielė contributes research for Surfshark’s educational resources in addition to managing trust initiatives, working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and building the firm’s online reputation.

Keeping the World Informed of the Status Quo

A differentiating factor organically emerged when Surfshark saw an opportunity to help raise awareness of Internet restrictions and data breaches by providing information to journalists and the general public. “At the time, many NGOs were collecting information about these things, but nobody had a global picture of the total number of cases over the past, say, six years,” Gabrielė says.

Surfshark launched its research activities in 2019 and quickly released its Digital Quality of Life Index, which ranks countries according to five digital well-being indicators: Internet affordability, Internet quality, electronic infrastructure, electronic security, and electronic government. Updated yearly, the index features easy-to-understand statistics and graphics designed for the layperson.

Another key resource Surfshark supplies is its Data Breach Map. It gives website visitors a clear overview of what exactly is happening on the global scene when it comes to cybersecurity and which parts of the world are affected. This map and its statistics empower people to more easily grasp the full scope of current threats to our global open Internet and understand the urgency of protecting their data against breaches. Armed with this information, they can then consider joining in the efforts to halt these trends.

At the same time, Surfshark also became more involved in the global cybersecurity community. It’s a founding member of the VPN Trust Initiative, whose mission is to gather industry leaders to advocate and validate guidelines and policies to ensure customers’ safety. Surfshark has also been an active Internet Society organization member since March 2020.

Humanizing Cybersecurity and Educating Users

Surfshark also rapidly rolled out new products to help users enjoy an even safer digital experience. In addition to the VPN it’s best known for, it developed an antivirus as well as tools enabling data-breach detection, secure private searches, and automated removal of personal data.

But what matters most to Surfshark is ensuring that users understand how to use these tools and know about the threats they may encounter online. “We want our customers to realize that simply buying our products isn’t enough,” Gabrielė says. “When a user opts for a VPN, we give them very clearly written onboarding information: what they can use their VPN for, how it enhances privacy, how it safeguards security. We take them through the journey step by step, explaining everything in simple layperson’s terms. They need to know things like which servers to connect to and when to use an antivirus.”

Surfshark also presents this information via articles on its blog, videos on its YouTube channels, Surfshark Academy and Surfshark, and episodes of its podcast, Surfshark Wave.

Surfshark views education as an essential part of its mission…
“We see providing this knowledge as a way of humanizing digital security to make it accessible to all.”

“We constantly strive to make sure the information we give users is clear,” Gabrielė says. To this end, Surfshark regularly surveys customers, asking questions such as whether they find it easy to use a VPN and know what a VPN can do for them. “We often discovered that people actually didn’t get something that seemed very simple to us—what a server does, for example.” This feedback allows Surfshark to go back to the drawing board, try to see things from the perspective of a first-time VPN user, and answer their questions before they even crop up.

Surfshark cautions users that a VPN “isn’t the Holy Grail,” as Gabrielė explains it. “It won’t save you from everything. If you click on a link in a phishing email, there’s not much we can do.” Internet users need to be proactive in protecting themselves, for instance, learning what scam emails look like and how not to fall prey to them. This is why Surfshark views education as an essential part of its mission.

“We see providing this knowledge as a way of humanizing digital security to make it accessible to all,” Gabrielė says. “We believe everyone should be empowered to protect themselves—it shouldn’t be something only for the tech-savvy.” Surfshark’s educational efforts form a core part of its identity and help it stand out in the cybersecurity world.

Advocating for an Open Global Internet

Like the Internet Society, Surfshark is concerned about protecting the open global Internet as a resource for the good of humanity. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to do any of what we do,” says Gabrielė. “It’s key to our mission of empowering people by facilitating a good understanding of privacy and cybersecurity. And we wouldn’t have the ability to keep track of what’s happening on the global digital scene or how people living in authoritarian countries are being affected, which is a vital first step in advocating for them.”

It’s key to our mission of empowering people by facilitating a good understanding of privacy and cybersecurity.”

Gabrielė stresses the importance of sharing such information. “Internet shutdowns for example run counter to human rights—they’re done to control protests and prevent people from mobilizing to oppose their government’s narrative.” When not everyone’s aware of a situation’s full scope and implications, it’s more challenging for other governments and NGOs to pressure these countries to make different decisions.

Standing Up against Data Collection

Another area of concern for Surfshark is data collection. “There’s a great deal of enthusiasm at the moment for using collected data to develop technology, but not many people are thinking about how this could compromise our privacy,” Gabrielė says. Surfshark wants to spread the word about the profiles data brokers are compiling of Internet users. “We did a study on this as well. Let’s say someone has eight apps on their phone—for food delivery, streaming video, social media, and so on. Just by having these eight apps, they can end up leaving some 80 digital footprints around the web. It might be their address, first and last name, and other things you might not expect.”

We thought people should have the right to search the Internet without becoming a product themselves.”

There’s been a trend toward more transparency in recent years. “Some companies are doing a good job of putting those nutrition labels in their privacy policies about the data being collected,” Gabrielė says. “But I have a feeling not many people actually read those things.” Users who skip over these policies don’t have a full understanding of how their data might be used.

Gabrielė gives a chilling example. “Imagine someone has an eating disorder, and because of the profiles that have been created about them, advertisers show them ads for unhealthy diet products. This is manipulation.”

Such unfair uses of data are what motivated Surfshark to go beyond their VPN apps and design extra tools such as Surfshark Search, which allows users to do searches without being tracked. “If you use Google, you leave traces behind you everywhere you go,” Gabrielė says. “We thought people should have the right to search the Internet without becoming a product themselves.”

Surfshark and the Internet Society

How did Surfshark hear about the Internet Society? “It’s impossible not to hear about them!” is Gabrielė’s immediate reply. “The Internet Society is very well known among cybersecurity players, whether NGOs or businesses, and it was a key source of information for us as we built our identity.”

As Surfshark stepped up its efforts to inform the public of threats such as Internet fragmentation, encryption loss, and data collection, it felt the need to work with NGOs with similar goals and values. “Like us, the Internet Society cares deeply about the future of the Internet and its accessibility to all,” says Gabrielė. “It just made sense to become a member, so we could help each other spread our messages to the various audiences we attract.”

When Surfshark decided to do an interview with a US Viewpoint with Dennis Quaid, it turned to the Internet Society for its insights on data collection. “We really appreciated your messaging about how Internet security issues like these are topics to be addressed now, not in ten years, and that everyone—not just tech people—should join in the efforts to change things.”

Like us, the Internet Society cares deeply about the future of the Internet and its accessibility to all..It just made sense to become a member, so we could help each other spread our messages to the various audiences we attract..”

Allies for a Better Future

The opportunities to collaborate with the Internet Society to achieve a more wide-reaching impact were another membership advantage that appealed to Surfshark. “We see the Internet Society as a key ally,” Gabrielė says. “We’ve already begun taking a firm stance on the issues together, for example, with our collaborative podcast episode about the Splinternet last year” (Surfshark Wave Episode 3). “And we see our membership as a two-way, mutually beneficial partnership, where we try to support the Internet Society and give back as much as we get.”

Gabrielė reports that Surfshark looks forward to continuing its collaboration with the Internet Society to make a bigger difference in advocating for a free, open Internet, standing up to cyber threats, and raising awareness of all the issues that matter to Internet users in today’s highly digital age.

Surfshark enthusiastically recommends Internet Society membership. “In this ever-evolving field, it’s easy to get lost in all the industry news and updates. The Internet Society’s information helps us prioritize what’s worth paying attention to.” Gabrielė also highlights the opportunity to seek advice from the Internet Society and its community. Surfshark has furthermore found it easier, as a member, to stay in touch with the wider cybersecurity sphere and find out about upcoming events. “We learned about the Global Encryption Coalition and became a member of it as well, thanks to the Internet Society.” Surfshark staff members have also participated in the Internet Society’s annual Community Week as attendees and speakers.

By working together, we can champion a stronger and better Internet and help ensure it’s available to all for the benefit of human progress.

Together with our global community, members of the Internet Society have the unique chance to grow, strengthen, and shape the Internet of the future. Join us.

Image credit: All photos are courtesy of Surfshark