Technology
10:04 am
Fri August 5, 2011

A New Way Around Internet Censorship?

Originally published on Sun July 31, 2011 2:40 pm

China is stepping up Internet censorship, telling hotels and cafes they need to monitor public Wi-Fi usage or face fines and punishments.

China is already one of the most heavily censored places in the world — along with places like Burma (Myanmar), Iran and many Middle Eastern countries.

Now, new software being developed at the University of Michigan may help Internet users find away around the blockages. Alex Halderman is an assistant professor of computer science at the university, and one of the developers of the new system, called Telex.

He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that right now, most people in censored countries connect to third-party servers outside the country to get around censorship.

These machines "receive connections from people inside the countries and then bounce them off to whatever censored website the user wants," Halderman says. But it's usually not long until the censoring government finds and blocks one of these outside servers.

Halderman says Telex will get around this problem by turning the entire Internet into an anti-censorship device. The system has two parts, he says.

"First, there's software that you install on your computer. And then there are devices that we call Telex stations, that Internet service providers (ISPs) outside the country doing the censorship put on the pipes of the Internet. That is, on the wires that are carrying traffic."

So if you're in China, and you want access to a banned site like YouTube, you just type YouTube.com into your browser, and the Telex station will see that connection, and disguise it as something innocuous. You might be watching YouTube, but to a censor, it will just seem as if you're visiting a harmless, non-blocked site.

Halderman recognizes that the Telex system will require cooperation from Internet service providers on a large scale if it is to work.

"We like to envision this technology as a possible government-level response to government-level censorship," he says, with governments providing incentives for ISPs to install Telex.

But what if terrorists or other bad actors want to use Telex to disguise their visits to banned sites?

"Unfortunately, there are already effective ways that terrorists could potentially visit websites like that without being tracked down," Halderman says. "I feel that the Telex technology doesn't make that substantially easier for them."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, host: Sticking with science and technology for a moment. If you want to visit, say, YouTube and you're in China, that will be pretty difficult. China, along with Burma, Iran and many other countries actively censor certain websites. There are ways around it, but they are usually temporary fixes.

Well, now, a group out of the University of Michigan has come up with software that basically disguises websites and allows users anywhere in the world to access any site they want. It's called Telex.

Alex Halderman, an assistant professor of computer science at the university, is behind the program. And he says right now, in many authoritarian countries, the state deploys a firewall between their own Internet systems and the rest of the world.

ALEX HALDERMAN: Citizens in these countries have been trying various ways to get around this for years. One of the most common today is to use what we call proxy servers, third party servers outside of the country doing the censorship that receive connections from people inside the countries and then bounce them off to whatever censored website the user wants.

RAZ: But once the government now finds out about it, they can just ban it.

HALDERMAN: That's right. It turns into a cat and mouse game.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. So, say, I'm in China and I've got Telex. First thing, is it software that I've installed on my computer? How do I get it?

HALDERMAN: Well, there are two parts. First, there's software that you install on your computer, and then there are devices that we call Telex stations, that Internet service providers outside of the country doing the censorship put on the pipes of the Internet, that is on the wires that are carrying traffic to websites.

You in the country, you might get a copy of Telex from a friend who's just passed it to you. You might get it from a website that was temporarily available before the government censors found it.

RAZ: And then what happens? So I've got the software on my computer, and how do I access a banned website at that point?

HALDERMAN: So after the user installs the Telex software, their computer makes a connection to some website that is not banned. It can be any website the user would normally visit that's outside of that country. So it could be, say, a Web page about people's favorite cats, something completely innocuous, as long as it's hosted in another country. That connection passes through the government censorship since it's not on the black list.

But then, these devices at ISPS that we call Telex stations recognize that connection as a request for anticensorship service and secretly divert it to a site that's been blocked that the user wants to access.

We like to envision this technology as a potential government level response to government level censorship. So if a country that wanted to oppose Internet censorship were to provide incentives to its ISPs to deploy Telex, that would allow the system to provide anticensorship service to people all around the world.

RAZ: Alex Halderman, let me ask you this question. What about a reverse use of this software? I mean, say for example there was a terrorist organization planning to carry out an attack in the U.S. and they wanted to go to websites that would attract the interest of the FBI or other investigators, couldn't they use the software to view those sites as well?

HALDERMAN: Unfortunately, there are already effective ways that terrorists could potentially visit websites like that without being tracked down, say, by using open Wi-Fi connections, by using anonymity technology that already exists. I feel that the Telex technology doesn't make that substantially easier for them. But what it does do is make it substantially easier for people to access content that is censored in their countries.

RAZ: That's Alex Halderman. He's one of the creators of the anticensorship software called Telex. Alex, thanks so much.

HALDERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.