We met online, after the election
by AUSTIN HEAP in San Francisco
01 Nov 2009 18:15
[ 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 tecnología-e-tecnología 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.