New Canada Centre / Citizen Lab Report: “Casting A Wider Net”

The Canada Centre for Global Security Studies and the Citizen Lab at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, have released a detailed report that tracks and analyzes the difficulties of broadcasting the news into jurisdictions that censor the Internet, including Iran and China. The report, entitled Casting a Wider Net: Lessons Learned in Delivering BBC Content on the Censored Internet reports on a series of real-world tests to deliver access to BBC websites into Iran and China, where they are regularly blocked by authorities. The research combines data from three major sources: two years’ worth of traffic data from the BBC’s web content services, in-field testing of Iranian and Chinese Internet censorship undertaken by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), and service delivery of Psiphon Inc, a Canadian “circumvention” service that delivers uncensored connections to the web for citizens living behind national firewalls.

Casting a Wider Net sheds a bright spotlight on what is typically a shadow game: the race among government censors to block content, and those determined to sidestep those efforts. China and Iran are among the world’s most pervasive filters of Internet content, and present a special challenge to global media broadcasters who are often targeted by governments for blocking. BBC’s Mandarin and Farsi services are normally subject to intense blocking efforts by both countries.

From 2009 to 2011, the BBC worked with Psiphon in a series of trials designed to test how readily content could overcome Chinese and Iranian blocking efforts, using a range of delivery methods, including social networking sites like Twitter, traditional radio broadcasts, and special email lists.

Working over several months with access to the results of the BBC’s and Psiphon’s trial data, the University of Toronto’s research team, led by the Canada Centre’s Visiting Fellow in Global Media, Karl Kathuria, experimented with several controlled propagation methods while simultaneously directing tests undertaken by ONI researchers inside China and Iran to verify blocking. The result is an unprecedented and detailed peek into the “cat and mouse game” of Internet censorship evasion: what works, what doesn’t, and why?

I explain the motivation for the research in the report’s foreword: “As global news moves online, and content becomes subject to increasingly tight restrictions in numerous national jurisdictions, the challenges of delivering content to target audiences are becoming increasingly complex. To succeed internationally, broadcasters will need to develop a comprehensive strategy to navigate this new media terrain carefully.”

“Casting a Wider Net shows that bypassing Internet censorship to deliver news content in restrictive communications environments involves far more than just supplying circumvention tools. Broadcasters need to devise a strategy for distributing content over the Internet with an understanding of the different challenges they will face in each of the target countries they are trying to reach.”

The full report can be downloaded freely at

Ottawa needs a strategy for cyberwar

National Post (comment)
June 30, 2009

Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski

Recently, the Canadian envoy to Iran was called in and admonished by Iranian officials for contributing to the destabilitization of the regime because of support for social networking tools, like Twitter and Facebook. The envoy must have scratched his head in puzzlement.

The Iranians’ furor was ignited by the work of our company, Psiphon, which is based in Canada and has actively engaged in a campaign to help Iranians bypass their country’s filters and exercise basic human rights of access to information and freedom of speech. On average, one Iranian per minute has signed up to our “right-2know” nodes — customized websites pushed into Iran that contain access to BBC Persian and Radio Farda — and more than 15,000 have used our service since the crisis began.

However, we have received no support from the Canadian government — not even a note of thanks. As far as we know, the Canadian government does not even have a cyberspace strategy (of promoting access to information and freedom of speech) about which a country like Iran would be irritated. As Canadians, we wish it did.

Psiphon’s activities in Iran are not the first of their kind to generate intense media interest. Just a few months ago, a related project of ours, the Information Warfare Monitor, published a report called Tracking GhostNet that discovered a cyber-espionage system infecting government ministries and embassies in more than 103 countries. The case was splashed across the front pages of newspapers, and produced a powerful curiosity about cyber security around the world that continues unabated.
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Psiphon, Iran, and OpenNet Initiative

There is a lot going on right now on so many exciting fronts. We at the OpenNet Initiative have released three major reports: An Asian regional overview, and country reports on China and Iran. We released these at the ONI Asia regional meeting in Penang Malaysia. Thanks to the ONI team for all of their hard work.

You can read about ONI Asia results here, and the Iran country report here

Second, we have been actively engaged in a campaign to allow Iranians to access the Internet freely via Psiphon, using Twitter and other outreach tools. The Globe and Mail has a report on it, among other media stories.

Summer of Psi

Inspired by Google’s Summer of Code, this year, Psi-Lab — a joint project of the Citizen Lab and Psiphon Inc — will organize the “Summer of Psi”, which aims to establish a rich and highly interactive set of communication and archiving tools and accompanying documentation to enable community participation in Psiphon open source development. Expect to see a newly invigorated forum, documentation, development tasks, and other interactive features earmarked for the open source community. Citizen Lab research associate Jeremy Vernon is driving the summer of psi.

Follow the blog here.

Psiphon Launch – Let the revolution begin!

Last night in Toronto, at the new Psiphon digs, we held our public launch of Psiphon Inc — the first company to be spun out of the Citizen Lab. Although Psiphon is spinning out, its relationship with the Citizen Lab is stronger than ever. We have developed a strategic partnership with Psiphon around Psi-LAB — which will be the home for research and development, red team threat modeling, and curation of all that is open source.

One of the most exciting aspects of the new Psiphon service is the “right2know” nodes, where denied content can be pushed to users in censored jursidictions and users, in turn, can sign up for the psiphon service, or simply use the right2know nodes for free without subscription. Find out more here.

Thanks to Rafal, Nart, Mike, Jane, Dirk, Rod, Adam, Jeremy, Jaymz, Greg, Eugene, Vlad, and everyone else involved in the Psiphon project!

TVO Big Ideas

I am scheduled to appear on TVO Big Ideas this weekend; details below.

Hacking Back: The Battle for Human Rights Online

TVO: Saturday and Sunday November 22 and 23, 2008, 4 PM
Repeats Saturday and Sunday at 5 am.

In this lecture, political science professor Ron Deibert looks at the issue of internet censorship and surveillance around the world and the tools being created (like “psiphon”) to empower global citizens to freely share and access information online. Deibert is Director of The Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies.

The video can be viewed here:

Breaching Trust

I am pleased to announce our release of a major investigative report, Breaching Trust: An analysis of surveillance and security practices on China’s TOM-Skype platform, written by Nart Villeneuve, Psiphon Fellow, the Citizen Lab, at the Munk Centre for International Studies, the University of Toronto.

The full report can be downloaded here.

John Markoff of the New York Times has just released a story about the report, which will appear in tomorrow’s paper, but can be found online here.

Major Findings of this report are as follows:

  • The full text chat messages of TOM-Skype users, along with Skype users who have communicated with TOM-Skype users, are regularly scanned for sensitive keywords, and if present, the resulting data are uploaded and stored on servers in China.
  • These text messages, along with millions of records containing personal information, are stored on insecure publicly-accessible web servers together with the encryption key required to decrypt the data.
  • The captured messages contain specific keywords relating to sensitive political topics such as Taiwan independence, the Falun Gong, and political opposition to the Communist Party of China.
  • Our analysis suggests that the surveillance is not solely keyword-driven. Many of the captured messages contain words that are too common for extensive logging, suggesting that there may be criteria, such as specific usernames, that determine whether messages are captured by the system.

As my colleague Rafal Rohozinski and I say in the foreword to the report, “If there was any doubt that your electronic communications – even secure chat – can leave a trace, Breaching Trust will put that case to rest. This is a wake up call to everyone who has ever put their (blind) faith in the assurances offered up by network intermediaries like Skype. Declarations and privacy policies are no substitute for the type of due diligence that the research put forth here represents.”

Software can bypass China’s “Great Firewall” but hard to get inside country

Two years ago the Citizen Lab released a program called Psiphon, which allows users in countries such as China and Iran to circumvent their governments’ Internet censorship. The free software uses computers outside the censoring country — known as proxies — to fetch web pages and send them back over encrypted connections. The technique is also used by a host of other tools, but Deibert says the goal was to make it as user-friendly as possible.

From the Canadian Press

Testimony to US Congress

I am testifying to US Congress today, at the US China Economic and Security Review Commission. My testimony covers the research of the OpenNet Initiative on Internet censorship practices in China, the range and effectiveness of circumvention methods, including our own tool — psiphon, and the role of US and Western corporations in aiding and supporting Internet censorship in China. My full testimony can be downloaded here.