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We met online, after the election

by AUSTIN HEAP in San Francisco

01 Nov 2009 18:1511 Comments
317_cartoon_obama_reaches_out_to_iran_small_over.jpgThe Information Revolution knows no borders.

[ comment ] The events of the Iranian election in June had us unrepentant Twitter addicts enthralled. With traditional media controlled by the government, the opposition organized using mobile phones and the Internet. As never before, the whole world could cheer alongside protesters demanding their rights while sharing in the terror and heartbreak of seeing them brutally crushed -- all in real time, on Twitter and YouTube.

Outraged at seeing a movement and a generation muzzled, a group of us got together and started developing anti-censorship tools. We believe everyone, everywhere should be able to freely communicate. The system we designed, "Haystack," provides completely uncensored access. There are no more Facebook blocks, no more government warning pages when trying to read BBC news -- just unfiltered Internet. It's an improvement to the state of the art in anti-censorship technology. It's a necessary one too: Iran's filtering is quite advanced, and it's one of two countries to censor the Internet using domestic hardware and software. (The other is China.) Imagine a postal service that opens each piece of mail and uses machine learning algorithms to detect subversive correspondence. That's Iranian digital censorship.

This kind of filtering is called "deep packet inspection." It allows the government to block, read, and even change messages sent over the Internet, including emails and tweets. Iran purchased equipment from Western companies like Nokia and Siemans for this censorship, and is rapidly deploying homegrown equivalents over which it can exert more control. Iran's filtering capabilities allow it to intercept and even change online communications -- emails, voice calls, even tweets.

Still, we were able to identify weaknesses in Iran's approach and develop countermeasures. On a tecnologĂ­a-e-tecnologĂ­a basis, censors will always lose as long as any information at all can get out.

After coding night and day since the election we tested a beta version of Haystack in early July by bouncing traffic through Iran. It worked. When we saw that the government had improved its filtering methods in preparation for the Qods Day celebration in September, we were briefly worried. But we couldn't help but cheer as Haystack cut through even the improved filtering. We couldn't have been more excited.

In retrospect, we shouldn't have been surprised. Traditional anti-censorship systems divert blocked traffic to servers located outside of the country. Haystack goes one step further: it uses innovative techniques to make blocked traffic look benign, rendering a user's activity virtually undetectable. Haystack also has a cryptographic component which ensures that our users' communications remain safe even if detected. The only way to block Haystack, we like to say, is to shut down the internet.

Deploying Haystack has hardly been a walk in the park, however. The problems are not merely technical. Under United States law, one can be put in jail for ten years just for sending an iPod to Iran. The legal clearance necessary to distribute Haystack has been a tall hurdle to jump. We've shuttled back and forth to Washington, D.C, and from coast to coast. We've written dozens of pages worth of legal forms and, because we're committed to a sustained effort to end censorship, we've even founded a non-profit, the Censorship Research Center, through which we hope to tackle the filtering schemes of other countries as well.

There is something strangely ironic about the events that brought us to this point. We learned about Iran through Tweets, YouTube videos, and photos posted on Facebook. These same media which we are told pull people apart, away from the personal contacts that make life meaningful, brought us closer to a people, and a movement that we would have not otherwise known. These same media that were supposed to create a generation of apathy, in fact, gave a generation its voice. The courage displayed by the Iranian people inspired us to help them, and to help others. We refuse to allow their courage and the courage of those like them to be in vain.

Austin Heap founded the Censorship Research Center to improve access to information and communications in Iran. This is his first tech column for Tehran Bureau.

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11 Comments

Thank you for your humanity and your vital contribution to free information and communication - key to the success of the Green Movement.

Amir / November 1, 2009 9:05 PM

While I don't think anyone can flat out deny the impact of social media in the election, I am also weary of too much enthusiasm for this enterprise as it tends to give a VERY misconstrued image of what is happening on the ground, while giving people the impression that they actually KNOW what is happening on the ground, given that they are watching it "all in real time, on Twitter and YouTube."

I think Iranian journalist Masoud Behnoud gives a very thoughtful analysis of this:
http://www.sidewalklyrics.com/?p=943

At the same time, if we are talking about free access and an enlightened world population at large and how that may translate into political progress throughout the world, I think we need to target the people of the developing world as well. Yes, in the United States democracy now! (and other progressive outlets) and CNN are both "accessible" but the latter spreads lies, war and misinformation and gets millions of more viewers through doing so. We need to think beyond mere access and focus on getting people to LISTEN.

Pedestrian / November 2, 2009 12:08 AM

Great article! Thanks for giving us a peek into your life, it must seem like a whirlwind came along this summer and turned everything upside down. Now you're jet-setting to Washington and everyplace! That's what comes of fighting for freedom!!! Keep up the good work!

Rev Magdalen / November 2, 2009 12:13 AM

Austin is worthy of a Nobel peace prize award!

Anthony / November 2, 2009 2:34 AM

We the people of the USA support your step forward to your freedom.....keep moving forward and you will succeed

Robinette 9.12 Project / November 2, 2009 3:20 AM

http://cellecast.com/tweets/

This tool and 100 others are needed to keep expression under govt radar. I applaud haystack, but figure only huge variety can adequately befuddle the censors.

Andrew Deal / November 2, 2009 9:12 PM

What Pedestrian said.

Pirouz / November 3, 2009 6:33 AM

to anthony: i think the people of iran who have nonviolently stood for freedom and democracy in the face of bullets and torture are infinitely more deserving of the nobel prize than a kid who has made a softwares program in complete safety and comfort in the united states

marg bar diktator!!

Koroush / November 4, 2009 8:33 PM

lots of thanks & looking for sooner releas of haystack, getting rid of stupid censorship in Iran.

Kambiz / November 7, 2009 4:46 PM

Great job, Austin! You are a hero of the Green Movement, and some have even suggested they name a street after you in Tehran one day! I dream of toasting champagne with you, TheVeni1, Josh Shahyar, Mehdi Saharkhiz, Persianbanoo, Oxfordgirl, Manic77, Sean, Tom, and so many amazing people at Azadi Square, under the tower in a Free Iran. The list is so long!

We are a smaller world, and borders are becoming irrelevant culturally. The internet is becoming an instrument of peace. Thank you so much for all you do in helping that evolution!

MWforHR / March 11, 2010 10:40 PM

Support Haystack in Iran

ahmad / September 8, 2010 1:08 PM