Anonymizing anti-censorship tool for thwarting repressive regimes

Just a year ago, 25-year old Austin Heap was a typical computer programmer, enjoying playing videogames during his downtime. But events that were unfolding half a world away changed dramatically the course of his life.

The 2009 presidential election in Iran has been held only days before. Twitter was rife with accounts of Iranian users claiming their votes had been stolen and that the government was bent on shutting them up, and at that moment, Heap decided to do something about it.

At first, he tried to help by creating safe proxies so that Iranians could use them to evade government detection by hiding their online identity. Through his blog, he offered instructions to people on how to run proxies from home, but this tactic proved flawed – the government censors were following his blog, too, and were closing proxies mere moments after he had made them available.

But, his efforts brought him to the attention of a dissatisfied Iranian official who decided to help him by giving him documentation on the operating procedures of the filtering software used by the government. Newsweek reports that although the 96-page document was in Farsi, Heap managed to understand enough from the diagrams to allow him and his colleague to start coding.

The result was Haystack – a program that would allow unfiltered Internet access to the people of Iran and that will hide the users’ real traffic by masking it with a stream of innocuous-looking requests. So when the user is visiting a page that would otherwise be filtered or would arouse suspicion, the government “sees” him visiting a random, unobjectionable page that is popular among Iranian citizens.

“In addition to providing anonymity, Haystack uses strong cryptography, ensuring that even if users’ traffic is detected, it cannot be read. Trying to find and decipher our users’ traffic amidst all the other traffic on the web really is like trying to find a needle in the proverbial Haystack,” it says on the official project homepage.

But offering this tool to Iranians was not as simple as putting it online for download and spreading the word. Since U.S. sanction laws forbid any trade in Iran, Heap couldn’t do it without getting permission from his own government – which he did, and very soon, too, since the State Department obviously approved of it and rushed it through an approval process.

With that obstacle cleared, Haystack was ready to be offered to Iranians. Initially, he shared the beta version with a small numbers of activists that he trusted. Their job was to spread it further by inviting other people they themselves trusted. And so the word is spreading, slowly but surely.

Heap isn’t worried by the slow speed – it was actually his idea. He doesn’t want the network to collapse under a large number of users. As the number grows, so does the network, but this effort is still largely dependent on donations.

Heap is also under no illusions that the Iranian government won’t be trying to sabotage his efforts. Quite recently, a member of the country’s Revolutionary Guards announced that Iran has formed a cyber army so big, that only China’s is bigger in comparison. Heap claims that this will not deter him, and that he has already thought of many countermeasures to deploy, should this cyber army strike.

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