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censorship

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Internet Filtering in Authoritarian Regimes

Interesting research: Sebastian Hellmeier, “The Dictator’s Digital Toolkit: Explaining Variation in Internet Filtering in Authoritarian Regimes,” Politics & Policy, 2016 (full paper is behind a paywall):

Abstract: Following its global diffusion during the last decade, the Internet was expected to become a liberation technology and a threat for autocratic regimes by facilitating collective action. Recently, however, autocratic regimes took control of the Internet and filter online content. Building on the literature concerning the political economy of repression, this article argues that regime characteristics, economic conditions, and conflict in bordering states account for variation in Internet filtering levels among autocratic regimes. Using OLS-regression, the article analyzes the determinants of Internet filtering as measured by the Open Net Initiative in 34 autocratic regimes. The results show that monarchies, regimes with higher levels of social unrest, regime changes in neighboring countries, and less oppositional competition in the political arena are more likely to filter the Internet. The article calls for a systematic data collection to analyze the causal mechanisms and the temporal dynamics of Internet filtering.

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How Signal Is Evading Censorship

Signal, the encrypted messaging app I prefer, is being blocked in both Egypt and the UAE. Recently, the Signal team developed a workaround: domain fronting.

Signal’s new anti-censorship feature uses a trick called “domain fronting,” Marlinspike explains. A country like Egypt, with only a few small internet service providers tightly controlled by the government, can block any direct request to a service on its blacklist. But clever services can circumvent that censorship by hiding their traffic inside of encrypted connections to a major internet service, like the content delivery networks (CDNs) that host content closer to users to speed up their online experience — or in Signal’s case, Google’s App Engine platform, designed to host apps on Google’s servers.

“Now when people in Egypt or the United Arab Emirates send a Signal message, it’ll look identical to something like a Google search,” Marlinspike says. “The idea is that using Signal will look like using Google; if you want to block Signal you’ll have to block Google.”

The trick works because Google’s App Engine allows developers to redirect traffic from Google.com to their own domain. Google’s use of TLS encryption means that contents of the traffic, including that redirect request, are hidden, and the internet service provider can see only that someone has connected to Google.com. That essentially turns Google into a proxy for Signal, bouncing its traffic and fooling the censors.

This isn’t a new trick (Tor uses it too, for example), but it does work.

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Cybersecurity Issues for the Next Administration

On today’s Internet, too much power is concentrated in too few hands. In the early days of the Internet, individuals were empowered. Now governments and corporations hold the balance of power. If we are to leave a better Internet for the next generations, governments need to rebalance Internet power more towards the individual. This means several things.

First, less surveillance. Surveillance has become the business model of the Internet, and an aspect that is appealing to governments worldwide. While computers make it easier to collect data, and networks to aggregate it, governments should do more to ensure that any surveillance is exceptional, transparent, regulated and targeted. It’s a tall order; governments such as that of the US need to overcome their own mass-surveillance desires, and at the same time implement regulations to fetter the ability of Internet companies to do the same.

Second, less censorship. The early days of the Internet were free of censorship, but no more. Many countries censor their Internet for a variety of political and moral reasons, and many large social networking platforms do the same thing for business reasons. Turkey censors anti-government political speech; many countries censor pornography. Facebook has censored both nudity and videos of police brutality. Governments need to commit to the free flow of information, and to make it harder for others to censor.

Third, less propaganda. One of the side-effects of free speech is erroneous speech. This naturally corrects itself when everybody can speak, but an Internet with centralized power is one that invites propaganda. For example, both China and Russia actively use propagandists to influence public opinion on social media. The more governments can do to counter propaganda in all forms, the better we all are.

And fourth, less use control. Governments need to ensure that our Internet systems are open and not closed, that neither totalitarian governments nor large corporations can limit what we do on them. This includes limits on what apps you can run on your smartphone, or what you can do with the digital files you purchase or are collected by the digital devices you own. Controls inhibit innovation: technical, business, and social.

Solutions require both corporate regulation and international cooperation. They require Internet governance to remain in the hands of the global community of engineers, companies, civil society groups, and Internet users. They require governments to be agile in the face of an ever-evolving Internet. And they’ll result in more power and control to the individual and less to powerful institutions. That’s how we built an Internet that enshrined the best of our societies, and that’s how we’ll keep it that way for future generations.

This essay previously appeared on Time.com, in a section about issues for the next president. It was supposed to appear in the print magazine, but was preempted by Donald Trump coverage.

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How Surveillance Causes Writers to Self-Censor

A worldwide survey of writers affiliated with PEN shows a significant level of self-censoring. From the press release:

The report’s revelations, based on a survey of nearly 800 writers worldwide, are alarming. Concern about surveillance is now nearly as high among writers living in democracies (75%) as among those living in non-democracies (80%). The levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in democratic countries are approaching the levels reported by writers living in authoritarian or semi-democratic countries. And writers around the world think that mass surveillance has significantly damaged U.S. credibility as a global champion of free expression for the long term.

New York Times article. Hacker News thread. Slashdot thread.

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