The Chinese Olympics are providing a powerful stimulus in the development of high-end anti-censorship technology that major media companies and individuals can use to sneak content through its Great Firewall.
Psiphon Inc., a Toronto-based circumvention technology provider, recently released an upgrade to its software that allows the safe transmission of images in addition to text, says principal Rafal Rohozinski.
The private company has been spun off from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a human rights organization that works to open Internet access to residents of countries with repressive governments, to build its anti-censorship arsenal of technology.
Pictures are more powerful than words, says Rohozinski. “Psiphon 2.0 is optimized for the delivery of multimedia content. It’s now possible to access YouTube, Gvideo and other sites that previously required the re-translation of codecs. In fact, in some of the tests we’ve conducted, it can actually stream video faster than YouTube.”
The company is targeting large-scale broadcasters and other corporate entities that want to ensure their content is accessible anywhere in the world, he says. “Public broadcasters such as the BBC and Voice of America who have a mission to broadcast content not just nationally but internationally are investing heavily in online strategies as they’re replacing their previous terrestrial and satellite strategies.”
Interest in circumvention technology is high, as many media companies are scrambling to find a solution that will allow them to cover the Chinese Olympics without filtering. Rohozinski says the company is in advanced stages of negotiations with three major media companies, but no announcements can be made until the Olympics are over to avoid alerting Chinese authorities.
Psiphon’s individual freeware version has also been optimized for video, and will continue to be available, he says. “In fact, that’s why we created a corporate version. Our transition to a for-profit entity is underway. We wanted to create a revenue stream to allow us to perpetually fund the work of the Citizen Lab.”
With the freeware version of Psiphon, dissidents can appeal to friends, families and human rights organizations outside of their censoring countries to download the software that provides them with a trusted proxy IP address, or Psiphonode, to safely receive and transmit content. With the enterprise version, the safe IP addresses are provided and managed entirely by Psiphon Inc.
There’s a permanent call out to add new members to the Psiphon community, says Rohozinski. About 200,000 downloads have been made of the Psiphonode software to date, and about 5,000 new ones are added monthly. “Since each node supports about 10-100 users within censoring countries, the total number of users is exponentially higher.”
Chinese authorities have put in place the most advanced, pervasive surveillance system in the world in anticipation of the Olympics, he says. “We fear that although there’s much interest in the West about surveillance now, it will fade afterwards.”
Rohozinski warns that many countries are already starting to use next-generation censorship tactics. To combat this, Psiphon has joined forces in a project with The SecDev Group, an operational think tank comprised of practitioners, scholars and former policy-makers working on issues of security and development.
“The project looks at ways to counter second and third generation censorship techniques, which go beyond just blocking access. Countries are using viruses, Trojans and other offensive computer network attacks to knock out resources at times when they’re most valuable. For example, we’re seeing denial of service attacks against media sites during elections, and loaded e-mail messages sent to NGOs in Darfur designed to destroy their information systems.”
Psiphon is also playing a role in promoting human rights by providing knowledge about its experiences to government entities, he says. Ron Deibert, co-founder of Psiphon, recently provided expert testimony before the US-China economic and security committee of Congress in the US. “They have some big questions about China’s human rights record – not just about its censorship but also about the complicity of Western companies in that as well.”