Internet users in the People's Republic of China are getting help from the University of Toronto. Living behind a firewall of censorship and information filtering, Chinese internet users fear going through the firewall because of the digital footprints they leave behind. If caught, they are often subject to coercive and even brutal interrogations.
That is, until a Canadian-designed program called Psiphon is released.
The program, in the late stages of development in a University of Toronto office, is designed to help those trapped behind the blocking and filtering systems set up by restrictive governments. If successful, it will equip volunteers in more open countries to help those on the other side of digital barriers, allowing a free flow of information and news into and out of even the most closed societies.
The program is part of a quiet war over freedom of information. Even as countries considered repressive, such as China, North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, pour money into stopping the free exchange of data, small groups of activists keep looking for ways around the technological barriers.
At the University of Toronto, in the small basement office of Citizen Lab, researchers are getting ready for the release of Psiphon, the latest weapon in the fight.
"I was always interested in the idea of using computers for social and political change," said Nart Villeneuve, who has been dabbling with the project for about two years. "It was a matter of creating a program for really non-technical people that was easy and effective."
Psiphon is designed to eliminate a drawback of anti-filter programs: incriminating the users behind the firewall. If found by authorities, that anti-filter software can lead to coercive interrogation, a bid to uncover the suspect's Internet travel secrets using a tactic known to insiders as "rubber-hose cryptoanalysis."
Villeneuve built a system that won't leave dangerous footprints on computers. In simple terms, it works by giving monitored computer users a way to send an encrypted request for information to a computer located in a secure country. That computer finds the information and sends it back, also encrypted.
An elegant wrinkle is that the data will enter users' machines through computer port 443. Relied on for the secure transfer of data, this port is the one through which reams of financial data stream constantly around the world.
"Unless a country wanted to cut off all connections for any financial transactions they wouldn't be able to cut off these transmissions," said professor Ronald Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab.
The program isn't without its drawbacks, but for the most part it will provide free access to the internet through a one-on-one connection with a computer in a free host country.
It will also defeat actions such as that taken by Google, who sold out internet users in China in return for access to the Chinese market following in the path of Microsoft, Yahoo and every other large company doing business in China.
While the project at University of Toronto is a purely Canadian enterprize, U of T works with Harvard and Cambridge universities on the Open Net Initiative to document internet interference, surveillance and filtering, including such activities led by the United States.
Now, that is called combat from the basement.