March 14, 2007 - Dissidents find ingenious ways to hide digital traces

By Chris Nuttall in San Francisco

Published: March 14 2007 22:03 | Last updated: March 14 2007 22:03

Getting stuck with a Scandinavian version of Google is seen as a small price to pay by those trying to hide their digital traces and circumvent censorship on the net.

“I’ve a button in Firefox [the web browser] I click and my [data] packets go off encrypted to a network of volunteers and private computers around the world,” says Danny O’Brien, international outreach co-ordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights pressure group.

“I get randomly routed through one of them and when I go to Google it might talk to me in Swedish, but this is a way of getting round these national [blocking] filters.”

He uses Tor, short for The Onion Router, a software application that can also enable more secure instant messaging.

It represents a sophisticated alternative to the traditional manual searches that internet users have made for “anonymous proxy servers”. There are lists of these on the web and they are based in numerous countries.

As the name suggests, they allow users to achieve anonymity by directing their surfing through a server that does not belong to their own internet service provider, thus disguising their location and giving them access to information they might not be granted from their home location.

Connections can be slow or unavailable, but anonymous proxy servers have been a lifeline to internet users in countries such as China trying to gain uncensored access to the web of the outside world.

Speeds, techniques and tools are improving – the latest software can create temporary virtual private networks among users and set up tunnelling and encryption protocols that allow a wide range of internet applications to be used effectively and anonymously.

Many of the new advances have been made by Chinese exiles, offering services from the US.

GPass2, released this month, can gather an entire suite of programmes – Internet Explorer, Firefox, e-mail software, Windows Media Player, instant messaging programmes – under a cloak of anonymity.

“GPass is widely used by users in China to overcome internet jamming,” says Atlanta-based World’s Gate in its press release announcing the product.

Last December, World’s Gate and three similar companies – Dynamic Internet Technology, UltraReach and Garden Networks for Freedom of Information – reached an agreement to co-operate on technology.

The alliance seemed driven by the size of the task facing them. Jack He, president of Garden Networks, said the Chinese government had been using increasingly sophisticated technologies to filter, block, monitor and mislead internet users.

“We all have insights, so we wanted more collaboration to help each other and in the past few months each of us has released new upgrades,” says Bill Xia, president of Dynamic.

Dynamic has also found ways to get mass e-mails through to the Chinese people.

Reporters without Borders has produced a handbook for bloggers and “cyber-dissidents” on how to avoid censorship. But it warns that much depends on the user’s technical skills and a level of trust with the provider of the circumvention tools.