New Software Could Outwit Tehran’s Censors

While the Iranian government has intensified its aggressive efforts to expand Internet filters, Austin Heap, a young programmer in the U.S., says he has developed software that would enable Iranians to evade their censors.

In response to the widespread crackdown following Iran’s June 2009 presidential elections, the San Francisco-based Censorship Research Center (CRC) developed a program that provides unfiltered, anonymous Internet access. 

Called Haystack, it uses a sophisticated mathematical formula to hide the user’s real Internet identity while allowing access to widely-used networking websites blocked by Iran’s government, such as YouTube, Facebook, Gmail, and Twitter. 

"Now we can launch our efforts to help those in Iran access the Internet as if there were no Iranian government filters," Austin Heap, CRC’s executive director, told IPS. 

On Apr. 14, Heap learned that CRC had received U.S. government authorization to export the anti-filter technology to Iran. 

Five days later, Kayhan, an ultra-conservative daily in Tehran, called the new efforts by the U.S. government to support anti-censorship programs a "CIA operation to intensify spying" against the Islamic Republic and an attempt to boost the political opposition. 

Heap told IPS that he ran his first live test of the software in July 2009 and "it was a great success." He explained that the main difference between Haystack and other anti-filtering programs "is that the data generated by Haystack looks ‘normal’ – it looks like one is visiting innocuous sites like weather.com and downloading pictures." 

"Most traditional anti-filtering software is easy for an observer (like the government) to detect that a user is using it," he said. "Haystack doesn’t do this. It cloaks all of the data." 

Exports of U.S. goods and services to Iran are prohibited unless authorized by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). OFAC’s decision to approve the CRC’s license application comes in light of recent aggressive moves by the Barack Obama administration to make access to the Internet a U.S. cause all over the world. 

"In the demonstrations that followed Iran’s presidential elections, grainy cell phone footage of a young woman’s bloody murder provided a digital indictment of the government’s brutality," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a major policy speech on internet freedom on Jan. 21. 

"And their courage is redefining how technology is used to spread truth and expose injustice," she added. 

Analysts believe that the Iranian government has invested and deployed advanced filtering systems that block conventional anti-filtering systems. Heap said that Haystack is different. 

"We’ve designed our network to work in a way that’s absurdly difficult for the government to block. If they wanted to block Haystack and all the other anti-filtering tools, they could just turn the Internet off," he said. 

Ali Akbar Moussavi Khoeini, a former member of Iran’s Parliament and former deputy chief to the communication committee, told IPS, "The slowdown of internet transmission speed and restricting people’s access to information… are both against the Iranian constitution and Iran’s development plan, as well as being in complete contradiction with Iran’s international commitments to organizations such as the ITU, International Telecommunication Union." 

"It is also a silly war against technology and the professional segment of the Iranian population," he added. 

Khoeini said he couldn’t wait to see how Haystack works in practice, a sentiment echoed by a 26-year-old online activist in Tehran. 

"Haystack has gotten a lot of publicity outside of Iran, but still I’ve seen no one who has tested this software inside the country," the activist told IPS on the condition of anonymity. "We have learned to be suspicious about things that make a lot of noise." 

"If it works inside Iran, that would be a great gift for those who live under information repression," the source said. 

Heap told IPS that his center has done extensive testing for months now in Iran to make sure the software performs as expected. 

"Haystack runs on Mac, Windows and Linux right now so it’s easy as downloading the software and double-clicking it. While we ramp up network capacity though, Haystack is invite only," he explained. 

Haystack is specifically designed for "low bandwidth environments" or places where dial-up is still the norm. 

Haystack does two things. First, it encrypts all the data coming out of a computer – so even if it falls into the hands of a government monitor, there’s nothing useful in the data and it’s virtually impossible to crack. 

Second, it hides this encrypted data in what appears to be normal Internet traffic, so to an onlooker it looks completely innocuous. 

Asked what would be the most secure way for Iranians to use such software without the threat of being traced, Heap said that the easiest way to move any data is offline, move it by hand, burn it on a CD or share it with friends via a USB disk. 

"The government in Iran can, in theory, monitor all unencrypted traffic moving over their network. For example, if you’re in Iran, going to haystacknetwork.com or torproject.org without being on an encrypted connection is completely traceable," he cautioned. 

"It’s always a cat-and-mouse game with Internet censorship," said Heap. "As hard as we’re working to help protect people’s abilities to communicate and seek information, there’s a group in Iran working to make sure we’re not successful."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Omid Memarian

Omid Memarian writes for Inter Press Service.