The Internet has its enemies: Iran, China, Burma, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and more. As an increasing number of countries attempt to restrict Internet access, the U.S. government made freedom of expression on the Internet a primary foreign policy goal. A step toward achieving that goal was demonstrated in a press release issued April 13, 2010 by Censorship Research Center (CRC) announcing the acquisition of the license required to export their anti-filtering software, Haystack, to Iran.
Anxious to learn more about what this authorization means for the people of Iran and provide a follow-up on a recent post, "Effective Tools and Strategy: Kicking it up a Notch in Cuba and Beyond," I interviewed CRC Executive Director, Austin Heap. He shared his journey to this pivotal development, the technology behind Haystack, as well as both the considerations and limitations involved in disseminating this same type of filter-circumventing software to other countries similarly affected by government controlled Internet filtering. Heap's commitment to upholding Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- that all people have the right to seek, receive and impart publicly available information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers -- is abundantly clear. From learning his first programming language at 8-years-old and knowing code in 20+ languages at the age of 26, Heap is thrilled to see technology being used to tear down walls that inhibit tolerance and promote human rights. While I was aware of this recently developed tool, I wondered how many people the software can empower and if there are limits to its impact. In a candid interview, Heap explained how the Haystack software works securely and CRC's hopes to provide this complex anti-filtering software around the globe.
"This license permits CRC to provide safe and uncensored Internet access via our Haystack software to those in Iran who live under government-imposed limits on free speech. Any organization looking to do humanitarian work in a sanctioned country has to go through the license application process. We are deeply committed to the idea that everyone has a human right to free expression, and censorship is a direct infringement of that right," he says. "This project is our attempt to make the world a better place by safeguarding the peoples right to free expression and access to information."
Heap claims authorities can block Haystack only by entirely disabling access to the Internet. According to him, their Haystack permits users to securely use normal web browsers and network applications while hiding traffic from the user inside other Internet traffic between ordinary web connections to innocuous sites. "To a computer, anyone using Haystack appears to be engaging in normal, unencrypted web browsing, which raises far fewer suspicions than many encrypted connections." Heap adds, "We would like to see as many people as possible assert their right to free expression. While Haystack is free-of-charge, CRC is dispersing it by invitation only while they build out capacity and organizational resources. To start, we aim to provide secure and uncensored Internet access to as many people as possible in Iran."
Haystack may be successful in other countries but CRC has not yet discovered the similarities and differences in the censoring methods used elsewhere. Heap explained to me that each country has a specific set of issues when it comes to online censorship and the way it's performed. While Cuba, Iran,and China all filter the Internet, the way it's done from a technical standpoint is different and may not be the exact same thing as what he and his partner, Daniel Colascione, developed for those in Iran. "Right now, our focus is Iran. Haystack was developed specifically to target the methods in which [the Iranian government] filters the Internet although we look forward to the opportunity to providing the freedom of speech to citizens of many more oppressed countries sooner than later," says Heap.
Ultimately, there's no way for CRC to know who is using their network. Part of the protection built into Haystack is meant to protect them from the users and the users from us, "That's just the nature of the dragon!" says Heap. When I asked how CRC intends to stop opposition authorities from discovering how Haystack works and creating a block specifically for Haystack, Heap acknowledge the charge as "difficult to rebut." "Under normal conditions, 'security through obscurity' is indeed false security, but Haystack has several properties that make it unique. To start, we do not rely on "obscurity" for protecting our users' privacy -- everything that one of ours users sends and receives is encrypted and it would take centuries for all the world's computers to decipher one of our users' browsing sessions even with full access to the Haystack source code," explained Heap. Their thorough design, however, is obscure as it was developed to make it very hard to find the software, let alone the user.
Heap and Colascione are not planning on leaving well-enough alone. They anticipate authorities will invest resources into finding a way to do prevent Haystack from being effective. Should they succeed, Heap is confident it will be temporary. "We will diligently refine our software and issue a new version that circumvents the restrictions. We will not, however, give the authorities any assistance in this process. By retarding their efforts, we ensure that the Haystack network operates more robustly for longer periods," Heap stated assuredly. When pushed further on the development of any solution for those affected by government initiated censorship, Heap could not have made his stance on safeguarding the peoples right to free expression and access to information more clear, "We are deeply committed to the idea that everyone has a human right to free expression, and censorship is a direct infringement of that right. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'"
Learn more about Censorship Research Group and how you can support Haystack by visiting www.CensorshipResearch.org.
The photo of Austin Heap was used with permission of Andy Hall, Observer New Review.