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<nettime> Citizen Lab releases Psiphon
Geert Lovink on Wed, 22 Feb 2006 14:03:31 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Citizen Lab releases Psiphon

Hi, has anyone tried this one out yet? I wonder how many nettimers keep 
track what Citizenlab is doing and if you are, like me, also promoting 
things like www.ngoinabox.org. /geert


Toronto Globe & Mail
Monday, February 13, 2006

TORONTO -- More than fifteen years after the Berlin Wall was shattered 
with hammers and bulldozers, a Canadian-designed computer program is 
preparing to break through what activists call the great firewall of 

The program, in the late stages of development in a University of 
Toronto office, is designed to help those trapped behind the blocking 
and filtering systems set up by restrictive governments. If successful, 
it will equip volunteers in more open countries to help those on the 
other side of digital barriers, allowing a free flow of information and 
news into and out of even the most closed societies.

The program is part of a quiet war over freedom of information. Even as 
countries considered repressive, such as China, North Korea, Iran and 
Saudi Arabia, pour money into stopping the free exchange of data, small 
groups of activists keep looking for ways around the technological 

At the University of Toronto, in the small basement office of Citizen 
Lab, researchers are getting ready for the release of Psiphon, the 
latest weapon in the fight.

"I was always interested in the idea of using computers for social and 
political change," said Nart Villeneuve, who has been dabbling with the 
project for about two years. "It was a matter of creating a program for 
really non-technical people that was easy and effective."

Psiphon is designed to eliminate a drawback of anti-filter programs: 
incriminating the users behind the firewall. If found by authorities, 
that anti-filter software can lead to coercive interrogation, a bid to 
uncover the suspect's Internet travel secrets using a tactic known to 
insiders as "rubber-hose cryptoanalysis."

Mr. Villeneuve built a system that won't leave dangerous footprints on 
computers. In simple terms, it works by giving monitored computer users 
a way to send an encrypted request for information to a computer 
located in a secure country. That computer finds the information and 
sends it back, also encrypted.

An elegant wrinkle is that the data will enter users' machines through 
computer port 443. Relied on for the secure transfer of data, this port 
is the one through whichreams of financial data stream constantly 
around the world.
"Unless a country wanted to cut off all connections for any financial 
transactions they wouldn't be able to cut off these transmissions," 
said Professor Ronald Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab.

A drawback to Psiphon is that the person behind the firewall has to be 
given a user name and password by the person offering up the computer. 
With this kind of setup, Mr. Villeneuve said, activists may end up 
working with specific dissidents and people in repressive countries may 
rely on relatives abroad to help them get connected. Canadians, with 
ties to every country in the world, are in a particularly good position 
to use such a system.

Although this reduces the program's reach, a relationship-based system 
could also minimize improper use. People who know the owner of their 
proxy computer are less likely to abuse their system, the logic goes.

"The big novel thing here is that you have a one-to-one connection," 
said Danny O'Brien, activism co-ordinator at the Electronic Frontier 
Foundation, a San Francisco-based group. "That's a great innovation, 
because so many people have computers that are always on, and this lets 
you deal with someone you can trust."

If the remote user begins to view illegal material, their access can be 
limited in several ways, such as allowing access to text only. In 
extreme cases, Mr. Villeneuve said, people found with evidence of 
illegal activity on their computer would be able to prove through 
forensic analysis that it had been done by the remote user.

The team at Citizen Lab is now racing to put the final touches on the 
program in time for its public debut at the international congress of 
the free-speech group PEN in May. Billed as a uniquely Canadian 
approach to "hactivism," the first generation of Psiphon will then be 
made publicly available.

Its release is set to come against a backdrop of ever-diminishing free 
access to the Internet. Just last month the popular search engine 
Google agreed to self-censor, restricting access to certain content and 
websites in order to gain access to the Chinese market.

Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, an 
international NGO, said the country has managed to create "a culture of 
fear and self-censorship." They are helped, she added, by Western 
countries willing to sell Internet-monitoring equipment to Beijing and 
bend to its terms.

Mr. O'Brien noted that public knowledge of monitoring can have as major 
an effect as the surveillance itself.

"You don't need to arrest every dissident and you don't need to take 
down every website. You just need to give the impression that you're 
watching," he said. "Merely establishing that you are being watched has 
a great effect on freedom of expression."

Activist groups around the world work to shine a spotlight on such 
repression, hoping that publicity and pressure will bring about change.

Although Psiphon is a purely Citizen Lab project, Prof. Deibert's team 
is also part of the Open Net Initiative. It's a partnership that 
includes Harvard and Cambridge universities and tries to document the 
extent of state interference on the Internet.

In Prof. Deibert's words, they try "to turn the tables on the watchers, 
to watch the watchers."

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