<nettime> Farah Stockman: Foreign activists stay covered online (Boston Globe)
patrice at xs4all.nl
Mon Jan 31 07:43:26 PST 2011
bwo Michael Polman/ Antenna
Foreign activists stay covered online
Mass group's software helps avoid censorship
A Walpole-based group of Internet activists known as Tor is playing a key
role in helping Egyptians get around Internet censorship during this
current political turmoil.
Over the last three days, 120,000 people - most of them Egyptian - have
downloaded Tor software, which helps activists protect their identity from
surveillance by repressive regimes and get around blocked sites, according
to Andrew Lewman, executive director of Tor, which provides the software
"We saw this huge amount of traffic,44 said Lewman, who said the group
normally gets about 20,000 downloads a day worldwide. "We started looking
at what was going on and the Internet service provider called us and said,
`You are getting a huge amount of requests from Egypt.4 It didn4t look
like an attack. It looked like a flash crowd.44
Most of the downloads occurred just before the Egyptian government ordered
a near-total block of the Internet on Thursday night, but usage remains
high through the few pathways to the Internet that remain.
It is not the first time that Tor, which was formed in 2001 after two MIT
students developed the anonymity software with a US Navy laboratory, has
found itself in the center of a political uprising.
Iranian activists downloaded its software en masse during the massive
protests after the contested 2009 presidential elections, and China has
repeatedly tried to block Tor downloads and denied visas to Tor4s
activists, who have trained people from over 20 countries, including
China, at workshops in Hong Kong and Europe.
"It is plain that tools like Tor can be enormously value,44 said John
Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at
Harvard University, who did a study of software that activists use,
including Tor. Since only the most tech-savvy know how to use such
software, "there is enormous value in trainings and they pay dividends in
crisis moments like this,44 he said.
The group, which employs about 10 people, runs a network of about 2,500
computers around the world manned by volunteers who help the anonymous
network run. It registered as a nonprofit in 2006 and receives about 75
percent of its funding from the US government.
About a year ago, Tor set up a special system just for Tunisian activists
to protect their identity. So when the Tunisian government began
monitoring Facebook pages and Twitter accounts during the recent uprising
in Tunisia, "those people were already protected,44 Lewman said.
In December 2009, Jacob Appelbaum, one of Tor4s main software developers,
traveled to Cairo and held workshops for human rights activists on how to
use the software to avoid surveillance on the Internet.
The workshop appears to have paid off. As protests swelled in Egypt in
recent days, so many people rushed to download Tor that one of its servers
crashed on Thursday. They managed to keep their service up and running,
but the downloads from Egypt plummeted Thursday night after the government
apparently ordered a near-total block on Internet service.
An estimated 91 percent of routes to the Internet in Egypt were down in a
matter of hours, according to Andree Toonk, the Dutch founder and lead
developer of BGPMon.net, which monitors the Internet and routing.
But a few paths to the Internet have remained, and those who use them are
continuing to use Tor, creating a spike in use despite the near-blackout
in online communication.
One Internet service provider, a company called Noor, was left unaffected
perhaps because it services banks or the Egyptian stock market, Toonk
said. That means that it is probably being closely scrutinized by the
Egyptian intelligence service, making anonymity software all the more
crucial, Tor activists said.
"People in Egypt right now that are using the Internet really need to
cover their tracks,44 said Appelbaum by telephone from Seattle. "Let4s
pretend that the government doesn4t fall. . . . We don4t know if they have
analysts working in real time to try to find activists, and we are trying
to make sure that people have access to Tor, so that people aren4t hunted
down in the streets.44
Appelbaum, who also works with WikiLeaks, suggested that the Internet
activists in Egypt who are using Tor to conceal their identities are not
merely organizing meetings in the streets, but may also be engaging in
on-line resistance activities, such as disrupting the Egyptian stock
market or banking activities.
"One of the ways to hit the Egyptian government where it hurts . . . is to
target the stock exchange, knock it off line or disrupt its activities, as
a method of protest,44 he said.
He said he is not involved in such activities, but that he witnessed
online discussions among Egyptian activists talking about taking such
Appelbaum is also part of a separate group of activists that is trying to
establish a satellite link to Egypt.
Steven A. Cook, a specialist on democracy movements in the Middle East who
just returned from Cairo, said that the Egyptian government4s
unprecedented attempt to shut off the Internet had done little to quell
"Shutting off the Internet has done nothing to prevent the world from
seeing what is going on,44 he said. "It didn4t matter anymore because
people were coming out into the streets regardless.44
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