Thinking Tech

New software may end internet censorship once and for all

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A new system would would turn the entire internet into a proxy server and make it virtually impossible for a censoring government to block individual sites.

Researchers have developed a new technology that may finally put an end to elaborate government-enacted internet censorship schemes like the infamous Great Firewall of China.

Implementing it, however, would require a broad infrastructure and widespread support from the international community.

Up until now, anti-censorship technology typically involved routing users around these blocks through an outside server called a proxy. The problem with this method is that it essentially becomes a game of whack-a-mole where individuals and groups would need to set up a new proxy each time authorities detect and blocks it. The new system, called Telex, takes a completely different approach wherein the entire internet is turned into a proxy server, which makes it virtually impossible for governments to block individual sites.

"This has the potential to shift the arms race regarding censorship to be in favor of free and open communication," said J. Alex Halderman, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan and one of Telex's developers.

How Telex works

The Telex software can be made available to be downloaded from a site or a copy can be borrowed from a friend. Once installed, the user can access blocked web sites through Internet Service Providers (ISPs) outside the censoring nation that deploy equipment called Telex stations.

The process begins with the user establishing a secure connection to any password-protected site that isn't blocked, otherwise known as a HTTPS website. This connection works as a decoy and allows the Telex software to mark it as a Telex request by inserting a secret-coded tag into the page headers. These tags utilize a cryptographic technique called "public-key steganography."

"Steganography is hiding the fact that you're sending a message at all," Halderman said. "We're able to hide it in the cryptographic protocol so that you can't even tell that the message is there."

The secret request is passed through routers at various ISPs until it reaches the ones that operate Telex stations. The stations have a private key that can recognize tagged connections from Telex clients and divert it so that the user could visit any site on the Internet.

International cooperation required

For the system to work, the one major caveat is that large segments of the Internet would need to be involved through participating ISPs.

"It would likely require support from nations that are friendly to the cause of a free and open Internet," Halderman said. "The problem with any one company doing this, for example, is they become a target. It's a collective action problem. You want to do it on a wide scale that makes connecting to the Internet almost an all or nothing proposition for the repressive state."

For now, the technology is at the proof-of-concept stage, which simply means the researchers have done most of their tinkering using a prototype system. Experiments so far have involve having testers browse the web for four months and a trial with a Beijing-based client who was able to stream videos on the blocked site YouTube.

The research team is scheduled to present the system on Aug. 12 at the annual USENIX Security Symposium held in San Francisco.

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure