Psiphon – the best way around the Great Firewall?

CNN is giving huge play to the story of the release of Psiphon, the tool that seems to work better than any other at getting under the Cyber Nanny’s skirt – provided the user has a contact in “the free world” to set up the account for them.

Canadian university researchers have developed software that will let users hop over governments’ Internet firewalls, raising the prospect of unfettered Internet access in countries that have long tried to control how residents use the Web.

The Psiphon program, developed by computer experts at the University of Toronto, allows an Internet user in a country with no online curbs to set up an account for someone in a country that censors Web content, and that person can then surf the Web without restrictions.

“The communities that we’re helping to connect to each other have a legitimate right to exercise their human rights within this governance regime,” said Ron Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which studies the interaction between human rights, technology and security issues.

He admitted Psiphon, which is set to launch Friday as a free download, could become a thorn in the side of governments that already monitor, limit and control what people read, watch, listen to and post on the Internet, with varying degrees of sophistication.

“It does conflict with some sovereign states’ values, but there are competing legal norms at work.”

…Deibert said Psiphon works by first allowing a person in a country like Canada that does not censor Internet content to set up a user name and a password for a person in a country that does — China, for example.

The Canadian user would then pass on the information to the Chinese user, who would log on to the Canadian’s computer and effectively use it as a server to browse the Internet without being censored by the Chinese government.

The Web traffic between the two users is encrypted and secure, so China would have difficulty tracing the usage, he said.

China has worked with admirable diligence to counter technology that puts cracks in the Firewall, but this one sounds relatively foolproof. The big challenge, in my eyes, is finding the willing “partner.” If anyone in China wants help from me in setting up an account, you know my email address.

Update: And now CNN is interviewing IT/political experts who say there are risks attached to using Psiphon. The government could easily use its famous brigade of 30,000-or-so Internet mischief makers as plants, offering to set up overseas accounts for gullible Chinese Netizens. They lure them in and then turn them over to the security police. The analyst said this is not far-fetched at all, as use of Psiphon will certainly be illegal in China and those who use it are breaking the law. So the only way to use it safely is to find a trusted “accomplice” in countries with a free Internet. Maybe we bloggers who don’t live in China can offer up our services.

Out of curiosity, is this story appearing on CNN in China, or is it being blacked out? I’d put my money on the latter.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

I’d like to see the wording of the law that makes this program illegal. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I would just like to see how it’s spelled out.

Sure a country can limit the content that enters it, but can they outlaw people from viewing it, or knowing things in general?

I know this isn’t clear. For example, it is illegal for people to post subversive things from within China, but is it illegal for them to read said things? The onus is on the content providers to not allow such things to be read, right?

What makes Psiphon illegal exactly? That it compromises the CPC’s blocks? Isn’t the onus on the CPC to maintain the blocks? And don’t they claim there aren’t any?

December 1, 2006 @ 1:04 pm | Comment

The question of what is and isn’t illegal in China, and whether it makes a difference is vast and complex. Pirated DVDs are illegal. Right. However, the government in the past has closed down blogs and arrested those who posted pro-democracy papers on the Net and it’s not totally far-fetched to see them taking action if there is enough usage of this new tool. After all, they have invested huge amounts of time and money into building this firewall. Will they just sit back and let it dissolve? Whether it’s technically illegal or not, they could well take steps to punish those who try to use it. Stranger things have happened in China.

It was the “experts” on CNN who said its use in China would be illegal and carry potential risks.

December 1, 2006 @ 1:20 pm | Comment

This may or may not be related information, but the SSH tunnel that I’ve been using over the past six months or so is no longer functioning. Well, not functioning isn’t quite the right wording… I can still visit all the same sites I’d be able to visit when not using the tunnel, but Technorati, Wikipedia, and the BBC News (all previously accessible) or now consistent timeouts. If this is the work of our loving Cyber Nanny, I don’t see what would stop them from disrupting Psiphon.

December 1, 2006 @ 3:27 pm | Comment

Seems like whether it’s legal or not really makes no difference (although oh how i wish it did). there are a lot of things that should be legal here but are completely out of the question, while the only ones that are now legal are the ones that should be illegal according to the constitution (which perhaps would have received an ounce more respect in the more respectable role of toilet paper), such as corruption, prostitution, exploitation.

December 1, 2006 @ 3:29 pm | Comment

“I’d like to see the wording of the law that makes this program illegal. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I would just like to see how it’s spelled out.”

You are making the classic mistake (if you don’t mind me saying) of believing that the Chinese govt obeys its own laws. It doesn’t. The Chinese people have the right to freedom of speech, assembly, blah blah blah. It doesn’t mean jack when the party hates you.

That dog website really loves you, Richard ;p

December 1, 2006 @ 5:23 pm | Comment

Time to repeat this: The Communist Party was founded as a Leninist party, and it remains avowedly Leninist. Just a few weeks ago Hu Jintao gave a speech reaffirming the party’s Leninist foundations; I counted at least several mentions of Lenin in that one. And Leninism – and its monstrous child, China’s Communist Party – categorically rejects any rule of law.

December 1, 2006 @ 5:53 pm | Comment

The CNN report was not blocked out at all. Ran in full. I’m not surprised. It’s too new, weird and obtuse for the traditional TV censors to know what to do with it. So they let it pass.

As for being illegal. It cannot be illegal. Because China says it does not block anything, it cannot be illegal to use means to circumvent something that does not exist. That’s the logical argument, and I’m sticking to it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Of course, they could always get you on other things like subversion and seditious activities which know no bound. But if you’re surfing to see what Britney is or is not wearing, I cannot see anyone getting incarcerated for using Psiphon.

December 1, 2006 @ 6:21 pm | Comment

What Britney’s wearing? Ick. These days, Britney Spears is one of the very few things which China OUGHT to censor.

December 1, 2006 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

Andrew that argument is giving me a headache. ๐Ÿ™‚

I, too, can’t see them imprisonng someone for using Psiphon, but again, if it grows in popularity and renders impotent their grandiose scheme for iron-fisted control of the Internet, they could well try to crack down. They’ve cracked down before. Time to watch and wait.

December 1, 2006 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

There’s already stuff out there, like Tor, which has a similar utility, works great, and isnt blocked at all — even the download page for Tor is unblocked.

Psiphon seems like it’d be harder to block without also rendering all secure online transactions inoperable at the same time, but I could be wrong about that, since I’ve never used the program and am not particularly techy.

December 3, 2006 @ 1:48 am | Comment

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