Saturday, February 2, 2008

Breaching the Great Firewall of China

China, though it has gone through an extended period of modernization and economic liberalization, is still nonetheless tightly controlled by the Communist Party. The the plan is that their educated classes will too busy to think about politics when they are playing with cars, digital gadgets, and voting for the next Chinese Pop Idol. There is, however, the problem of the Internet. It is the ultimate beacon of freedom: a decentralized, hard-to-control, morass of ideas and commerce. Thus was born the Golden Shield Project, though it's more commonly known as the "Great Firewall of China".

It's aim is straightforward: to control the information passing through and circulating within the Chinese Internet. Filtering technologies allow the blocking of websites (imagine a Chinese version of Prison Planet), and search terms such as "Democracy". Personal emails can be opened and email traffic can be disrupted. But more importantly, the internet is used as a surveillance tool - if there are repeated attempts to subvert authority, IP addresses can be traced to real-world addresses. The fear of being sent to prison is usually enough for most common folk to avoid discussion of politics online.

Of course, there are ways of circumventing the Chinese Firewall. The biggest weaknesses are encrypted traffic and anonymous traffic. Two technologies that I know can exploit these weaknesses with ease, and allow the Chinese people to exercise freedoms in ways they never even thought possible.

Tor - an anonymity network

What Tor does is somewhat complicated, but the end results are fairly easily explained. The user's IP address is hidden - making the user invisible. However, the internet traffic itself can still be examined, so by looking at patterns in the data coming out of Tor's "exit nodes", a person's identity can be ascertained through the information itself. All cloaking devices have their weaknesses, just like that episode of Star Trek. The user must still take certain other precautions, such as using data encryption.

Freenet - a censorship-resistant distributed data store

Achieving complete anonymity and encryption of data might require abandonment of the traditional way internet works, such as using Freenet. Very simply put, Freenet piggybacks on the regular internet, allowing content to be distributed all over the world anonymously. Moreover, if one node is knocked out, the content remains as all the pieces are distributed everywhere. While this prevents dynamic content such as interactive websites using databases, "static" content such as text, music, movies can be stored. This would allow Chinese citizens to read books, watch movies, and listen to music otherwise banned on the mainland. It more resembles a filesharing network that way, though it is completely anonymous, distributed, and allows complete freedom of speech.

One question remains: if the Chinese Government blocks access to certain websites (including the ones that supply the above-mentioned software), how do the Chinese get their hands on these technologies? Unfortunately, the only way is to do it the "old-fashioned way" - distributing copies by CD. In that sense, you must also breach the old Great Wall of China.

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