Here in Canada we take technology for granted. Our personal data is relatively secure, Internet access is unfettered and no one comes pounding at our door demanding to see our software licenses. In much of the rest of the world this is not the case.
Three University of Toronto students are doing their part to help others circumvent the constraints imposed by authoritarian governments. Prof. Ron Deibert, an associate professor of political science who focuses on technology, media and world politics, runs the Citizen Lab from the basement of the Munk Centre for International Studies building on the U of T campus in downtown Toronto. The lab is a place where technology and civic activism come together. Here Graeme Bunton, Michelle Levesque and Nart Villeneuve work with Prof. Deibert on a variety of projects using technology for social advancement.
Though the work at the lab covers everything from documentary film making to research and development, one area that kept everyone busy last year was their work in civic activism. This work eventually took them to Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico where the three, along with Prof. Deibert helped teach (and learn from) local IT and human rights workers everything from security to Linux.
In areas of the world like Guatemala, where political oppression has a long and painful history, governments grasp at any tenuous straw to impose their will.
While in Guatemala the students were told how alleged software piracy is often used as an excuse for government agents to raid the offices of political and social activists and confiscate their computers. Here in Canada the worst case scenario is a letter from a lawyer.
The trip to Guatemala in June of last year was the result of a convergence of research being done at the lab on Internet Security and an ongoing relationship with TV Ontario and film director Mike Downie. The resultant three-part documentary “Hactivista” aired on TVO in December.
“I came up with an idea that was something like (the) Mod Squad,” Deibert said, where I would “send them off on missions.” Deibert chose his team well. Bunton is the hardware, front end and computer graphics guy. He is a forth-year political science major who started in technology using a Vic20 years ago, learned on his own and doesn’t have much interest in taking traditional computer science courses. Villeneuve is the “30,000 feet” idea guy and de facto spokesperson of the trio. He just graduated with a multi-disciplinary degree in Peace and Conflict.
Levesque, the lone computer science major of the bunch and in her forth year, covers the development side. “She gives us our tech creed,” Deibert laughed. Levesque is more generous, saying that they all are tech savvy but have different areas of expertise “It actually works very well, we have enough overlap so we can communicate with each other and know what we are talking about and yet we also have almost every single field (covered),” she said.
While in Guatemala the trio did everything from setting up Internet cameras to giving lectures on security and Linux. But, in the end, it was the students who gained the most knowledge. “Everything got flipped on its head, we were the ones who were learning,” Villeneuve said. He was quite surprised at the level of Linux kernel development being done and held in high regard the methods used to pass on IT knowledge. Unlike Canada where there are literally thousands of IT courses available from grade school to university and beyond, in Guatemala, where resources are limited, there is a system of knowledge sharing to get computer training. “The catch is (if someone teaches you) you have to pass it on to someone else, Villeneuve explained. “They seem to be doing a pretty good job of that.”
BACK AT HOME
Some of the research being done at the lab is in the area of Internet censorship and surveillance, work which is done in partnership with Harvard and Cambridge universities. The students are documenting patterns of Internet content filtering and surveillance through technical means. The project is called the OpenNet Initiative.
“What we have been doing is developing a suite of tools that allow us to probe information infrastructures behind national firewalls in countries of concern and essentially get a sense of what is being filtered, how it is being filtered and why it is being filtered,” Deibert explained.
Two countries they have researched extensively are China and Iran. It is the former which has the heavier censorship hand. “If you can get access through a box outside of China you can get whatever you want,” Villeneuve said. “But for the vast majority of people it is just not an option.”
So the students are building their own circumvention system. Levesque is the tech lead, getting help from the others. Previous circumvention systems relied on peer to peer networks, but they were too easy to stop. “If there is a way for a random person to find out about peers, then censors can find out about the peers (too),” Villeneuve said.
“We are taking the idea of a peer to peer and applying it in a human context,” Villeneuve said. “You have to know someone to get in, they run the software for you…but that is a high barrier because it is a human point of contact…(so) we are designing it to be really user friendly.”
In technical terms, “it is a personal proxy of sorts,” Bunton said. “It is not perfect for everyone but it relies on a different network than what they can censor so far,” Levesque added. The students would like to have the circumvention technology available sometime this year.
Funding for the work and research done at the lab comes from a variety of sources including the Ford Foundation, the OpenNet Initiative and the Open Society Institute.
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Software piracy a complex issue in developing world
According to the Business Software Alliance, Guatemala has done the best job in Latin America of reducing software piracy with a drop from 94 per cent in 1994 to 61 per cent in 2002. Most of this success has been achieved through education not pressure tactics. Canadian software piracy in comparison is about 38 per cent.
But using legal software is not always an option in the developing world as the prohibitive cost associated with its acquisition is a limiting factor. Though no one is out to condone software piracy, the simple fact is Canada is a country with the resources to pay for software, whereas in many parts of the world it is simply not the case.