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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.