Hacktivists mount counter-offensive to Internet censorship

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The arms race over Internet censorship is escalating.

A new weapon is being developed to help dissidents gain free access to the Web.

A team of Toronto-based “hacktivists” – hackers with a commitment to social responsibility – is beta-testing software that can circumvent Internet censorship by repressive governments.

Dubbed Psiphon, the software enables a third-party computer to act as a proxy that allows Internet users to access banned content.

Psiphon was developed by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s (U of T) Munk Centre for International Studies. Described as a “hothouse that brings together social scientists, filmmakers, computer scientists, activists, and artists,” the Citizen Lab explores hypermedia technologies and grassroots social movements, civic activism, and democratic change within an emerging planetary polity.

Ron Deibert, head of the Citizen Lab and an associate professor of political science at the U of T, marshals this group of hacktivists who use their collective expertise to decipher how organizations or repressive states filter digital information. Also known as the “Hacker Prof”, Deibert says the group is concerned with combating state censorship across the globe.

Although the Citizen Lab’s attention is currently on China and other countries that engage in overt censorship and surveillance, Western countries are not off the hook.

“Headlines like the Great Firewall of China have spotlighted censorship in that country and others such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, but filtering activities in Western states or so-called democratic countries frequently fly under the radar,” says Deibert.

“We will soon be investigating Canada, the U.S. and some 40 other countries for Internet surveillance and filtering activities,” says Deibert.

The Citizen Lab is part of a larger coalition that includes Harvard and Cambridge Universities called the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), which investigates global Internet filtering. Each university has a distinct role: Harvard researches the legal aspects of the issue, Cambridge organizes activists in censored locations to conduct research and the Citizen Lab handles technical research and development.

Deibert says the coalition’s researchers are “run like agents” carrying out covert operations into hostile territory to gather information. This approach is necessary because researchers must collaborate with dissidents within repressive countries to sort out exactly what technical mechanisms governments use to censor the Internet, which can put them at great risk if these activities are discovered.

“Identities and locations are kept secret and information is compartmentalized, just as any spy agency would do it because in most instances lives are at stake,” says Deibert.

The coalition has identified cyber-censorship in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Burma, Tunisia, Yemen, India, and Pakistan – but China tops the list.

China has the most powerful censorship tools in the world. It employs cutting-edge technology from Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks to maintain its Great Firewall. With its sophisticated system of routers and gateways, China blocks access to banned sites on the Internet at its borders.

In addition, Deibert says the cyber-activities of suspected dissidents are under surveillance.

Stefan Dubowski, managing editor of telecom research at Ottawa-based Decima Reports, says an initiative such as Psiphon was inevitable since “online citizen activism is bred in the Internet’s bones.”

“As certain countries have managed to convince Internet content providers to go along with filtering plans, some citizens of the Web were sure to find ways around the walls these nations have erected,” says Dubowski.

The Citizen Lab hopes to harness this loose collaboration of Internet activists to get around state-run firewalls, according to Michael Hull, lead software designer for the Citizen Lab.

Psiphon employs a hub-and-spoke scheme to link dissidents to Internet activists outside a censored country’s borders. An activist located in an uncensored country such as Canada installs the software on his computer. He then creates a list of trusted Internet users in censored countries, and sends his Internet Protocol (IP) address to the people on the list. These people can then link to his computer and use it to access banned sites.

To hide this traffic to banned sites from state surveillance, Psiphon data is encrypted and travels on a network reserved for financial transactions.

“The activity is masked. Censors won’t see what the person is accessing because as far as they’re concerned, the user could be making a Visa purchase,” says Hull.

As an added safety feature, no software is actually installed on the censored computer. Should a crackdown occur, authorities would not be able find anything on the user’s computer.

But a possible shortcoming is that the trusted circle could be infiltrated by operatives of a repressive government.

Sharon Hom, executive director of the Human Rights in China (HRC), a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in New York, says Psiphon and the work the Citizen Lab does is vital to groups like HRC.

The HRC monitors human rights abuses in China and also transmits banned information into the country via its Web magazine and blogs. Hom says her organization has been subjected to filtering and has been blacklisted by the Chinese government.

“I think it is very important to have labs and organizations that bring a high level of technical expertise to help NGOs operate and circumvent censorship and promote free flow of information in virtual space,” says Hom.

She sees great potential in Psiphon, which she hopes can help users get around China’s powerful filters. Hom also looks forward to seeing a Chinese version of the software so that it could be readily adopted by China’s estimated 130 million Internet users.

Nart Villeneuve, the Citizen Lab’s director of research, says the group is also developing tool kits that can help organizations such as the HRC gain a better understanding of the technology involved in filtering requests to banned sites. The kits identify types of filters and help people find ways to circumvent them, says Villeneuve.

Internet surveillance also happens closer to home, not just in distant repressive countries. Canadian authorities also conduct Internet surveillance, says a professor at the University of Ottawa.

“There is Internet surveillance going on in Canada. Although primarily aimed against crime, one would hope it is nowhere near what they have in other countries, even the U.S.,” says Dr. Michael Geist, the Canada research chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa.

Geist says the recent arrests of 17 alleged terrorists in Toronto, Mississauga and Pickering, Ont. were a successful use of Internet surveillance by law enforcement agencies, but he warns authorities could seek to extend their mandate.

“In light of recent developments concerning terror activities, I think they will call for greater surveillance powers.”

This worries Deibert, who says Canadian authorities operate under less restrictions and oversight than their American counterparts. He says there are instances where authorities have to carry out surveillance or intercept communications, but this has to be done under the rule of law and within a transparent environment to



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