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Dissidents Get a hand from Canadian Communications Revolutionaries

August 27, 2009

Freedom of choice can’t be taken for granted. The Internet is a contested space where the availability of your information is not guaranteed. New digital walls are being built in cyberspace more effective than those brought down in the 1980s. In today’s information environment, firewalls and other active measures are as effective as the “memory holes” in George Orwell’s 1984, blanking out knowledge and erasing digital history.

Psiphon is a company and a web proxy that promotes media democracy through development of web-based circumvention applications. The company’s development team at the “Citizen Lab”, at U of T’s Munk Centre has enabled readers of independent media to bypass censorship programs. Psiphon’s commercial division contracts web proxy services to high-profile clientele as the EU and BBC.  The open source division facilitates open media to citizens of authoritarian states.

What makes Psiphon’s technology so pervasive is its relative ease of use and cost effectiveness. It can be downloaded and installed on a trusted computer in a non-censored country. The user in a censored country can access the service through a browser without having to make a download.
The process is explained in this Youtube video:

The trusted computer acts as a proxy server (a Psiphonode), which bypass state censored servers. A user (Psiphonite) in an authoritarian country is sent a password, and then logs in. Through the proxy server, the user accesses the forbidden content or social network. Web censors only see an unfamiliar IP address. If a censor, impersonating a user gets into the service, locates the IP and shuts it down, Psiphon directs to a different location with a new server and IP.  By using personal computers from small trusted sources, the application stays under the radar longer. As usage on a single server increases, others join to meet the demand. The smallness of scale offered by individual nodes is Psiphon’s strength; personal networks punching thousands of little holes through the Great Firewall of China and other authoritarian national web systems.

Psiphon is not an anonymizer nor is it risk free.  It is alleged that logs of pertaining to the email account of Li Zhi, a Psiphon user, were turned over to the Chinese government by the Hong Kong subsidiary of Yahoo!.  Moreover, if a malware attack could potentially breach a server’s security, user logs could be found, but that is a risk many are willing to take.

Psiphon has been used by dissidents in China, Burma and Iran (during the recent election protest), and by people on domestic military bases and in corporations. In a June 19th press release from the news site Information Warfare Monitor, Rafal Rohozinski said they went on the offensive, employing operators to keep nodes open.

One Comment leave one →
  1. canworldjon permalink*
    August 31, 2009 11:16 am

    great post! I wrote about this a little bit back but you’ve clearly bested my analysis!

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