Tor: Protecting Citizen Journalists in Oppressive Regimes

July 3, 2012

10:15 am

During the Cold War, as Voice of America radio was trying to counter Soviet propaganda by broadcasting in Russian, the station found itself jammed by the Moscow government. Over 60 years later, Voice of America has a different problem: its website is being blocked by other countries.

So Voice of America’s parent company enlisted the help of Tor, creators of a suite of tools for protecting privacy and security on the Internet. With an award from the Knight Foundation, Tor is building a toolkit for journalists that includes a secure web browser and file uploader, open-source audio and video apps to create content, and training programs.

These tools are meant to protect not just formal journalists, but citizen journalists as well. Under oppressive governments, their communications could be spied on by governments or violent groups who “request” information from specific programs like Skype, email providers, or ISPs. Google recently released a list of content removal requests from governments, and Gmail users will occasionally see this warning message:

gmail blocked

“People have been beheaded for using social media to go against corruption,” says Tor development director Karen Reilly.

In February, the Iranian government allegedly blocked https sites, which includes Gmail and bank websites. Al Jazeera English was forced to close its Beijing bureau in May when the Chinese government would not renew or grant new visas for journalists. And in Syria, pro-government hackers have been spreading Trojans this year to spy on anti-government activists. The list goes on.

With volunteers around the globe, Tor is constantly trying to duck and weave around censorship. The latest tactic is to make Tor traffic look like other traffic – specifically, traffic you wouldn’t want to block, like YouTube. That way, it’s a win-win: if the government still blocks the traffic, ordinary citizens – who weren’t aware or didn’t care about censorship – start getting annoyed, and the pressure to stop the blocking mounts. The Tor team also tries to release temporary fixes when they get emails that Tor is being blocked.

It may be a game of cat and mouse, but the mice are fighting for a cause – and technology is on their side.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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