Anti-Censorship/Privacy Enhancing Technologies

This article in Foreign Policy is representative of accounts of the development and use of anti-Censorship/privacy enhancing technologies that only tell part of the story. While technologies such as Tor and psiphon are given great treatment, the frame used to contextualize their use gives the misleading impression that they are only used in “repressive” countries:

One software program called Psiphon, which was developed by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, allows any person with a computer to serve as a proxy for someone living behind a firewall. Since it was launched a year ago, more than 100,000 people have turned their personal computers into proxies.

The most sophisticated proxy technology may be Tor, developed jointly by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet freedom advocacy organization. Tor is a downloadable software that routes an Internet surfing session through three proxy servers randomly chosen from a network of more than 1,000 servers run by volunteers worldwide. “Tor is state of the art,” says John Mitchell, an expert on Internet security at Stanford University. For citizens of repressive regimes, it may be the best hope or evading the cat’s paw.

This partial picture ignores the global use of these technologies. More and more countries are censoring the Internet — not just China and Iran.

Here’s an interesting anecdote. When psiphon was released the CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster, covered it but the reporter working on the story had to phone me at the Citizen Lab because she could not access the psiphon website from CBC because it was blocked by their filtering software, aka censorware. This is not the first time I’ve heard this. Reporters at CBC need to use tools like psiphon to do their jobs!

The other missing piece is surveillance. The U.S., which has the most sophisticated electronic surveillance program in the world, has been caught illegally spying on citizens. Anti-Censorship/privacy enhancing technologies are used all over the world. Even the Privacy Commissioner of Canada recommends that Canadians use anonymous communications technologies. These are tools developed for and used by people all over the world. To pitch them as something that’s only used in repressive countries is misleading and inaccurate.

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