A basement in the
gray, Gothic heart of the University
of Toronto is home to the
CSI of cyberspace. “We are doing free expression forensics,” says Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab,
based at the Munk Centre for
International Studies. Deibert and his team of academics and students investigate
in real time governments and companies that restrict what we see and hear on
the Internet. They are also trying to help online journalists and bloggers slip
the shackles of censorship and surveillance. Deibert is a co-founder of the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a project of the
Citizen Lab in collaboration with the Berkman Center for Internet and
Society at Harvard Law School. ONI tracks the blocking and
filtering of the Internet around the globe.
“We are testing in 71 countries,” says Deibert, who shares
his data with Berkman. “We are testing all the time. We are the technical hub
“We started out in 2002 with China,” said Jillian York, project coordinator
for Berkman. “The work evolved, and then with Cuba we cracked it.” By 2006, ONI
had expanded its dragnet for blocked or filtered content to more than 40
countries. However, as Citizen Lab and Berkman gained expertise and resources so
did the censors they battled.
“We are now onto third-generation controls,” York said of Internet
censorship. “The first generation was simple filtering, IP blocking in China,
for example.” The second generation was surveillance, which ranged from placing
spies or closed-circuit cameras in Internet cafés to installing tracking
software on computers themselves. “The third generation controls combine all
the above. We see it in China,
Syria, and Burma. It’s a
very broad approach,” York
ONI’s research and public awareness-raising provides just one
weapon in the increasingly sophisticated armory that bloggers need to deploy against
government encroachment. Some free-speech campaigners engage across a wide
battlefront, taking on authorities in Tunisia
for example, to keep blogging
and video platforms open. Others, like Deibert, devise tools for
an individual user to tunnel beneath a firewall or slip past a digital spy undetected.
He helped develop Psiphon,
a free, open source application that channels data through a network of proxies
to circumvent censorship. “Anyone can use it. It’s fast and there’s nothing to
download onto your computer for the Internet police to find,” said Deibert.
It’s a game of digital cat-and-mouse with authorities hunting
down circumvention nodes, and Psiphon switching to an alternate as soon as a
node is compromised. Citizen Lab launched Psiphon in December 2006 but did not
have the resources to develop it further. So in May this year, Deibert and
another ONI founder, Rafal
Rohozinski, spun it off as a commercial enterprise. It is still free to
users but charges companies to deliver their blocked content. Clients so far
include the BBC and the U.S.
government-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been a boon to Psiphon
and other circumvention tools like Tor,
spreading node connection information among bloggers and journalists. This was
evident during the media crackdown in Iran that followed the disputed
June presidential elections, when Twitter proved difficult to shut down.
Much of the light in Deibert’s Toronto basement may come from rows of LCD
screens but unmasking digital spies is not all about electronic wizardry. “With
ONI, we are testing all the time but we are not just a technical operation. The technology is not as important as
the cultural information,” says Deibert, sounding like an old-school Le Carré
character who stresses “human intelligence” over gadgetry. Reporting by
volunteers on the ground in repressive countries provides vital information and
context for monitors to analyze censorship developments and anticipate
Berkman has expanded the reporting network through a
crowd-sourcing tool called Herdict,
which allows individuals to report a blocked Web site immediately.
“This is a constant struggle—the threat environment is
always morphing,” according to Deibert. And the threats don’t just come from
governments. Defenders of free
expression and user privacy are increasingly concerned about the potential
dangers of “cloud computing,” in which vast stores of personal data are held remotely
by private companies both in democracies and repressive states. “Some of the
biggest threats are from private companies. Cyberspace is largely owned and
operated by private companies. Data is sent into a cloud over which we have no
control,” Deibert says. The potential for such abuse is heightened in
repressive states. An example of the dangers for the Citizen Lab team was TOM-Skype, the Chinese version of Skype.
Citizen Lab uncovered a huge privacy breach where
supposedly secure data were being stored secretly on servers in China.
Another case that Diebert says should concern us was in July
this year when BlackBerry users in the United Arab Emirates were directed by
text messages from their service provider Etisalat, which is majority owned by
the UAE government to a link to upgrade their phones. The software they
downloaded, however, turned out to be spyware.
BlackBerry maker, Research
in Motion Ltd of Canada,
denied involvement and showed customers how to remove the software.
Deibert cautions online journalists in these days of
increased third-party hosting to pay attention to corporate as well as
government surveillance, and to read the fine print of terms-of-use agreements
with ISPs and others before checking the sign-up box for an e-mail account or
blog hosting platform.
“We need to lift the lid on the Internet. Where are the servers, where does your e-mail go,
where is the Internet exchange point located, who has access to the building?”
Every day journalists and bloggers are
reminded of the need to fight for their freedoms. Censorship and surveillance
are slippery slopes. Take Pakistan.
In February 2006, in its first case of Internet censorship, Islamabad decided to shield its populace from
cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, published in
the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. The Pakistan Communications
Authority blocked 12 Web sites that reproduced the offending caricatures. By
April of that year the authority was censoring five other Web sites saying they
had published “misleading information”. In July, 30 more Web sites were
blocked, nearly all of them associated with the movement advocating
independence for the province
creep is an established phenomenon in Asia and the Middle
East. But now it is spreading to Africa,
where Internet use is still relatively low. Sub-Saharan African governments
that have hobbled their own broadcast and print media have watched the
celebrity-censors of other continents like China,
Cuba and Iran and have drawn
the inevitable conclusion: Online journalism is the future, so control it now.
is going to be a test case,” says the Berkman
Center’s York. “Internet penetration is low, yet
platforms like Blogspot are blocked.”
When you talk to people at organizations
such as ONI, one thing quickly becomes clear: They don’t know who is going to
win the war for control of cyberspace. Circumvention tools like Tor and Psiphon
are tactical weapons. A strategic response requires unrelenting campaigning and
public education to raise the economic, political and social costs of
censorship and surveillance for governments and private companies.
Meanwhile, Citizen Lab keeps doing what it
does best; “We combine the technology with human intelligence, then turn them
around to watch the watchers,” Deibert said.