Vaulting the great firewall

Published 05.08.2008 ‘Comment is Free’

Despite recent reports that restrictions will be lifted on some media and human rights websites, one event in which the Chinese are almost certain to win gold medals in is the internet surveillance and censorship race. But journalists do not have to wait for the vagaries of the policy shifts of the Chinese government in negotiation with the IOC. They can easily bypass the restrictions by using techniques that Chinese democracy activists already use, which are highly effective and practically unstoppable.

The internet police in China number in the tens of thousands. They regularly scan and add new websites to the national blacklists. They have also excelled in blocking the majority of existing methods to bypass the firewall, including countless proxy servers and websites that teach people how to get around censorship.

The Golden Shield project, launched at the China security expo 2000, exists to amalgamate internet surveillance and filtering systems, public record databases and CCTV footage. Internet censorship in China also forbids the use of certain keywords in an email message, search engine query or within a website’s address. Oversight technology is built into the national telecommunications infrastructure, network devices and hardware found in computer shops and prevalently into a growing number of software tools. For example, Skype Inc has developed a special version of its client, calledTOM Skype for Chinese internet users. It abides by Chinese requirements and implements keyword filtering in the instant messaging system.

The best solutions for circumventing internet censorship at the moment are those that rely on “western” computers acting as a gateway for internet users in China. Two interesting projects come to mind. Both provide an opportunity for us to act in solidarity with users living behind national firewalls, by allowing them to browse the internet through our computers.

The Tor Project, originating from the US Naval Research Laboratory to assist defence and intelligence services in anonymous internet browsing, today comprises one of the most successfully and widely used anonymity networks. Maintained by a worldwide collective of supergeeks (or, rather, security and anonymity specialists), it uses several thousand servers around the world to disguise your internet identity and the destination of the website you are wishing to visit.

To make Tor unblockable in China and other countries, a new feature has recently been added. Instead of joining the Tor network directly, thereby revealing your intention, you first connect to a computer set up by your friends or colleagues, who then introduce you to the Tor network (a “virtual bridge”, they call it). Because the Chinese cannot know in advance who these friends of yours will be (technically speaking, their IP address), they cannot pre-empt by blacklisting. Once you do connect through the bridge to the Tor network, it is almost impossible for surveillance agencies to know that you are using Tor.

Tor is an open-source tool, which has undergone an incredible amount of study, testing and review. It is released for free, has an excellent graphical interface and is also available as a portable version – meaning that it works straight off a USB memory stick without any prior installation.

Another project to offer censorship circumvention is called Psiphon. Released by the CitizensLab in Toronto, Canada, it allows anyone with an internet connection, a static IP and the Windows operating system to install a web-based proxy on their computer. Then pass your IP address and password for accessing the proxy to the friend living in a censored internet environment. Since the system is based on closed trust networks (ie, you and your friends), it is incredibly difficult for surveillance agencies to detect and block it.

So, journalists wishing to browse the internet freely from China should ask their colleagues or friends back home to set up one of the above solutions. Prior communication between the host – the one who runs the service from a country that does not practise internet censorship and the client – who uses the service is required to pass details of the proxy or the bridge. Both systems rely on the host and the client knowing each other, in order to remain unblockable. But, given that condition, both systems can be set up and working within half an hour.

Civil society has answers to the problems posed by the implementation of intrusive and prohibitive technology. These solutions are used by democracy activists and journalists all over the world. Their ability to fool the most sophisticated surveillance and censorship system and their ease of installation and sensible graphical interfaces are proof that not all is lost in the digital battle for free speech.

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