Geeks Around the Globe Rally to Help Iranians Online
08 Jul 2009 15:56
Geeks and God: Sign reads, "God is on our side. Do you intend to filter God, too?"
By CYRUS FARIVAR in San Francisco | 8 July 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] In his converted loft apartment in the semi-sketchy-meets-startup SoMa neighborhood, Austin Heap, 25, spends most of his time in front of his computer -- a PC tower that he built himself and hacked to run Mac OS X.
Heap didn't have much knowledge or interest in Iran until very recently. As foreign media began to be kicked out of the country, information coming from online sources became that much more crucial.
"Three weeks ago I was very happy playing Warcraft and I was following the Iran election," he says. "But it wasn't until everything escalated there that I got involved."
On June 15, three days after the election, Heap sprung into action.
On his blog, he published a guide for geeks everywhere to set up proxy servers for Iranian citizens -- a technique where Internet traffic gets re-routed through another computer as a way to evade online filters.
"I felt like it was my responsibility to use my skills to help," he adds.
Proxy servers, which have been in use in Iran for years as Iranians have struggled to get around government filters, are a constant cat-and-mouse game. As the government tracks them down, new ones take their place. Heap helped to create a flood of new ones all at once, which worked for a little while.
Non-Iranian geeks and activists worldwide are offering substantial technical support to help thousands of Iranians get around government Internet filters and to get unfettered access to information online.
And Iranians within Iran are responding. Many of the organizations and companies that make these various software tools have reported a dramatic spike in usage from Iran.
"Before the election we were seeing about one to two hundred new users [from Iran] per day," says Andrew Lewman, executive director of The Tor Project.
"Right after the election and as the protests started we started seeing that spike up into 700 - 1,000 per day. Now we're up to about 2,000 new users a day and around 8,000 connections sustained at any time, which is a huge, dramatic increase."
Tor and Psiphon
Tor, which was created in 2003 and was initially funded by the United States Naval Research Laboratory, is more than just a way to get around blockages.
Arguably the most sophisticated of many anti-filtering applications, Tor strips away online identifying information as data passes through its network. That means it's significantly more difficult for Iranian Internet authorities or anyone else watching traffic to surveil online activity. Today, its parent organization, The Tor Project, is an independent non-profit organization based in Massachusetts.
Tor relies on a network of thousands of users around the globe who have installed the free software on their computer and have it set up to act as a relay. Once a computer is configured to act as a relay, then other Tor users can pass data through it.
Each time a Tor user uses the program to access the Web, Tor will pass the data through different, constantly-changing relays as a way to mask the user's online trail. However, one downside of Tor is that it slows down Web traffic. Plus, it can be a little difficult to configure for those who don't have a decent amount of technical knowledge.
The Tor website has many of its instructions and other webpages available in Persian and other languages.
Another program that's seen a great deal of new attention from Iranian users is Psiphon, an anti-filtering program developed by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.
Less than 10 days after the election, Psiphon's chief executive officer, Rafal Rohozinski, told The Ottawa Citizen on June 20 that his colleagues were seeing one new Iranian user on the Psiphon network every minute.
As a result of Psiphon's popularity, Psiphon officials have said that Canada's envoy to Iran was "admonished" for helping Iranians get around government filters and access "immoral" content.
Rohozinski and his colleague Ron Deibert wrote in The National Post on June 30 that more than 15,000 Iranians have used Psiphon to date.
"Tens of thousands of people use Psiphon 'right2know' nodes since the crisis began -- over 70,000 times from with in the geographic region of Islamic Republic," Deibert said in an email. (That number may reflect a single user using the
same node repeatedly.) Of those, a smaller proportion sign up for the actual service. "We have not had a single instance of a blockage report from within Iran," he said. "This is for the Psiphon cloud service, obviously, and not a home server."
Psiphon, while easier to use than Tor as it requires now downloading of any software, does not provide online anonymity in the same way. In fact, since the Iranian election, Psiphon has released a special webpage in Persian for Iranians to sign up and use the service without having to download or install any software.
"Psiphon is good for non-techies, easy to use types who don't want/know how to install software on their computer," wrote Nart Villeneuve, Psiphon's chief technology officer, in an email. "Tor is best for security, people at risk, those that require security."
Newfound Political Support
While most of these efforts like Tor and Psiphon have operated without any new, formal help by any government, that may be changing.
Just last week, a motion unanimously passed the Dutch House of Representatives led by MP Han Ten Broeke of the conservative VVD party. The motion called for the Dutch government to support free access to the Internet, to provide one million euros from the Human Rights Fund for dissemination of news and information, and to enable a ban on the supply of technology for Internet filtering and control by Dutch or European corporations.
A joint venture by Nokia and Siemens, which are from Finland and Germany, respectively, has come under fire in recent weeks. The Wall Street Journal reported late last month that the two companies had sold Iran an online monitoring center as part of a package of telecommunications equipment. This enables the Iranian government to engage in "deep packet inspection," or a highly-sophisticated monitoring of Iranian online traffic.
"Even more so, the Dutch Parliament called upon Nokia and Siemens to donate their profits from their deals with Iran to these projects," says David Suurland, a doctoral student at the University of Leiden who has spearheaded the Dutch effort to support Iran through the use of proxy servers and other technical means.
"They basically said that you've delivered these tools of oppression to Iran and now we call upon you to give the profits of these deals to the people who are fighting to liberate the people of Iran, or at least fighting to give back the anonymity and safety to the people of Iran."
While Tor, Psiphon and other tools continue to be spread around the Iranian tech community, there are some new efforts underway as well. Heap says that while his proxy servers were initially useful, Tehran has caught on.
"At this point it looks like the Iranian government has stepped up their filtering efforts and is now blocking all plaintext proxies out of Iran, which makes all of the work that the volunteers did, obsolete," Heap says.
So that's why on July 4 Heap announced the upcoming launch of Haystack, a new piece of software that he and other activists worldwide have developed. He says Haystack will specifically target the Iranian filtering system.
Heap claims that after downloading his software, with one click, users will be able to circumvent blockages in Iran.
He's hoping to tap into the nascent support from the Dutch government and from supporters worldwide to be able to sustain his efforts, just as Tor, Psiphon and others have been able to sustain themselves in recent years.
"I think that all of these projects have one goal in mind and that's to provide unfiltered Internet access," Heap says.
Cyrus Farivar is an Iranian-American freelance technology journalist based in Oakland, California. He reports for PRI's The World, NPR, CBC, The Economist and others. His forthcoming book, "The Internet of Elsewhere," examines the history and effects of the Internet in four countries around the world, including Iran. It is due out from Rutgers University Press in 2010.
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