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How the West is arming the anti-censorship movement Add to ...

In the high-stakes cyber struggle to outwit repressive regimes – such as China’s – that spend billions thwarting the free flow of information, a Canada-U.S. computer research group believes it can tip the balance toward freedom.

“The bad guys have lots of tools,” said Ian Goldberg, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s Cheriton School of Computer Science.

A math genius, who won international acclaim while still in high school, Prof. Goldberg’s prowess as a cryptographer gained fame in cyberspace when he cracked Netscape’s supposedly unbreakable encryption. Now he is part of team that has come up with an anti-censorship system called Telex.

“With this technology, we are trying to give the anti-censorship movement some better tools,” he said.

Until a few days ago, when the joint University of Waterloo and University of Michigan team announced their Telex test running inside a computer lab in Ann Arbor, China’s cyber police may not have known there was a chink in their cyber wall.

“I guess this will wake the Chinese up,” said Prof. Goldberg, 38, just before he presented the software counterpunch at USENIX Security Symposium in San Francisco on Friday.

If Telex works as envisioned and if the major funding is found to massively scale it up to thousands of specially equipped servers that can detect and redirect requests to supposedly blocked websites, then it could lift the cyber curtain imposed by China and some other states.

As part of their testing, users in Beijing who installed an innocuous bit of software that alerts Telex servers have successfully reached YouTube – one of the tens of thousands of sites that are deemed dangerous or subversive by Beijing’s cyber police and are thus blocked. Most Western news sites and all even vaguely dissident offshore Chinese sites also are blocked.

“We think that anti-censorship technology is a force for good in the world,” Prof. Goldberg said. “Funding this will help freedom.”

So far, Telex is little more than a concept. Many, perhaps thousands, of Telex-equipped servers would need to be installed. In short, nations, not just companies, would need to gang up to beat the censors. Mr. Goldberg hopes for U.S. State Department funding.

To work, it will require “support from nations that are friendly to the cause of a free and open Internet,” said Alex Halderman, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan and another of Telex’s developers.

“We believe it has the potential to shift the balance of power in the censorship arms race,” he said.

To outwit the censors, an Internet user in a state that blocks or censors access, needs to install a small tag or key. Then the user makes a seemingly innocuous request to a normally unblocked site. “Since the connection looks normal, the censor allows it, but this connection is only a decoy,” the developers said. Once the apparently benign request reaches a Telex-equipped server, it detects the hidden tag and redirects the request to the “banned” site.

Mr. Goldberg acknowledges that the scheme might also be misused; for instance, to cloak illicit sites. But authorities in Western states – where presumably Telex servers would be located – would still be able to require Internet service providers to disclose the real locations and identity of sites cloaked to fool foreign censors.

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