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11/27/2006
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Software Will Let Users Dodge Government Internet Censorship

Developers from the University of Toronto plan to release software this week that will allow residents in restrictive countries to gain uncensored Internet access through friends' and family members' home computers.

Developers from the University of Toronto plan to release software this week that will allow residents in restrictive countries to gain uncensored Internet access through friends' and family members' home computers.

The Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies announced Sunday that it will release psiphon, a "human rights software project," under General Public License, by Friday. The system, part of the lab's CiviSec Project, is funded by the Open Society Institute.

It is not entirely bulletproof, but developers say it will be difficult for censors to identify and block psiphon.

People in free countries can install the free open source software and turn their home computers into "psiphonodes," or personal, encrypted servers. The psiphonode administrator can create and manage user accounts so friends and relatives can log in from censored countries. The encrypted connection allows people in restrictive countries to go to the administrators' unique Web addresses, login with usernames and passwords provided by administrators, and surf the Web.

The people living under censorship (the software developers call them psiphonites) never make a direct connection to Web sites through their own computers. The Web site operators cannot see users' information, though administrators can see everything the psiphonite does.

The psiphon Web site, which provides the software, doesn't have to be operative for the software to work. In other words, even if a censoring regime blocks access to the psiphon Web site, people in restrictive countries can access the wide open Web through their friends' and family members' computers.

The provider or administrator must have his or her computer up and running for people in other countries to access it. The open source software alerts administrators when their own network information changes so they can give psiphon users their new Web address.

Developers hope to distribute the software through social networks, allowing each administrator to create a network based on personal trust. If the provider only gives his or her computer address to a few trustworthy people, it will be difficult for censoring governments to identify and block his or her psiphon server, developers said.

However, censoring governments could catch on to the use of censor-bypassing software if officials infiltrate an administrator's social network and detect an encrypted connection to a home computer in another country. Developers urge verification through manual key certificate fingerprint identification to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks.

Developers said the software could be used to edit blogs, although it is primarily for Web browsing. It cannot be used for chat or VoIP. It works with Windows and Linux operating systems. Programmers are working on a Mac version.

The psiphon Web site contains a warning that bypassing censorship may be against the law and users should seriously consider the risks and potential consequences.

It may be interesting to see how the system goes over in China, where officials claim that, despite studies showing otherwise, they have trouble with access, not deliberate Internet restrictions.

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