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So, You Want to Evade Government Censorship and Spying ...

by Mark Hay

November 24, 2014

This fall, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a new state-controlled internet filtering system. Ostensibly, the regimen is meant to help cut back on pirated material, but critics—and Abbott has many—have been quick to point out that these controls can, through error, misjudgment, or subversion, easily blot out whole chunks of the internet. Australia is not the only country flirting with troubling internet regulations, either. Over the past year, online activists have noticed a slow creep of censorship by the UK, United States, and other nations not traditionally associated with a restricted web. And while intentions might be good, programs like these remain a dangerous tool for censorship. Blocks and filters on the West’s otherwise free internet might currently seem innocuous, but between Western bids for control of the net in the name of stability and the more traditional censorship baddies, the internet has been steadily getting narrower.

Those who feel they have nothing to hide may ignore, or even embrace, this narrowing. But censorship has already blocked millions who live under strict regimes from legitimate and free engagement with the outside world, limiting their lives and turning whole swathes of the globe into impenetrable dark zones beyond our access and understanding. So the need to circumvent web filtering isn’t just about doing shady things; it’s about connecting the world again, and warding off the seemingly innocuous programs that continuously drift toward egregious restrictions. A narrow web means more and more of us will soon need to learn how to get around filtering, which seems like a daunting task. Netizens unused to navigating censorship can take heart, though, knowing that tools to circumvent online blocks are evolving just as fast, if not faster, than governments can wall up the net.

Map by Jeffrey Ogden/Wikimedia Commons

Dozens of nations live under some form of internet censorship, but the Open Net Initiative monitors more than 20 countries with either the worst record or (in the case of the United States) the most extant tools of censorship to abuse. Most of those on the lists are the usual suspects: China, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Some are less obvious but also not completely unexpected: Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Syria, Uzbekistan, Tunisia, and Turkmenistan. These nations engage in active filtering to block websites and e-mails, monitor internet traffic and content creation, and at worst arrest bloggers—sometimes in staggering numbers. But over the past few years, more and more websites have been blacklisted in Dubai, Russia, Turkey, and Vietnam, in more egregious examples of the slow, steady, visible creep of censorship.          

The apparent global acceptance of these restrictions is depressing to free speech and search advocates, but there is one handy thing about internet censorship: It’s usually pretty much the same from nation-to-nation and derived from old hacker tactics, which are none too complex to identify and avoid. Most censorship boils down to three tactics: First, internet service providers can have their domain name servers redirect blocked websites to other sites or just block undesirable sites outright. Second, companies or governments can scan web addresses for keywords related to ideas they want to censor. Third, authorities use something called packet filtering to track and block the source and destination of internet signals. In the worst cases, that last approach can mutate into a monitoring regime like the U.S. PRISM program.

Banner warns Thai citizens that "sharing" or "liking" can get them jailed. Photo by Pratyeka/Wikimedia Commons

If a government really wants to spy on you, there’s very little you can do to avoid that snooping, especially if they’ve coerced or cajoled your service providers into giving the information you send over the internet. But avoiding the initial layer of censorship—blocking and monitoring—is a lot easier than avoiding out-and-out spying. If a website has been deleted by censors, it’s usually just a matter of accessing copies of the site or reaching the site under a new URL—a game of whack-a-mole. If a website is blocked or redirected, just use a different domain name server, like the free, public ones maintained by Google. And in the worst-case scenario, to prevent someone from seeing the origin or destination of your internet wanderings, simply download a virtual private network or TOR browser to reroute your traffic through remote, secure servers and networks (often better than proxy servers, which fail quickly and are often insecure). This will fudge your metadata, allowing your traffic to act as if it were originating in a non-blocked, uncensored country, free to move at will.

TOR and VPNs are essentially the golden standard of censorship evasion, as they allow one to entirely sidestep national blocks. But in turn, China is the golden standard of censorship, employing a mixture of blocking and direct content monitoring and deletion, tracking and eliminating keywords and keeping tabs on many of their 640 million internet users. Within the last two years officials have started to tamper with VPNs, blocking traffic to and from their servers and detecting when users are using a VPN even if they can’t see the traffic. If censors eventually manage to knock out VPNs, it could be a major setback for the free web in certain countries.          

Abbott and Putin, two internet censors with their koala friends. Photo by Ian Bremmer/Twitter

Fortunately, because so much censorship builds on simple, logical evolutions of existing technology, it’s just as easy for hackers and free net advocates to tweak their own positions, beefing up VPNs and continuing to outpace their pursuers. Beyond VPNs, some content providers have figured out in the past year how to avoid blocking and deletion outright by playing on the vested interests of censoring governments and creating mirror images of their sites on the servers of legitimate sites like Amazon. Tackling these sites would require governments to take down Amazon itself, which could amount to a business fiasco. Others looking to have a secure conversation without prying eyes have created wireless mesh networks, basically linking their routers together outside of the wider internet to form private, long-distance networks. America’s National Security Agency has been forced to admit it finds it finds it almost impossible to outrun the innovation of hackers like those at TOR.

Yes there is more censorship (in terms of the number of monitoring nations and the tools available to them) today than there was even two years ago. But as activists point out, this is as much a sign of nations’ inability to control the internet as it is of their success. It just shows how quickly and easily we can sidestep all forms of censorship, no matter how pervasive. In fact, it’s become so easy to outrun the world’s increasingly pervasive monitoring regimens that if you’d like to evade blocks or filters yourself, there are now flow charts you can consult to choose the right service or program. With tools like these, you can be sure that even for the 20 percent of the world living under censorship, the web can still be a free and vibrant place. In the long run, governments will not be able to stop it, no matter how they try.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

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So, You Want to Evade Government Censorship and Spying ...