How one researcher helped Uncle Sam beat China's censors

The U.S. government has used a special email program to “bust through internet censorship filters” in order to deliver news to people in countries such as China where censorship is in effect, according to Fox News. Fox News cites a report from the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors, which said it used the email program, known as Feed Over email, or FOE, to bypass the Chinese government’s censors.

While Fox touts the development of this technology as something new, we heard about it at the Defcon hacker conference way back in August, 2009. That was when researcher Sho Ho (pictured) spoke about the program in front of a crowd of hackers and security experts in Las Vegas. Government security experts often talk at Defcon, which draws hackers on both sides of the legal divide, in hopes of getting help in validating new ideas. At the time, the FOE technology was billed as way that technology could be used to enhance freedom around the globe.

Since that time, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, known as the BBG and producer of Voice of America, tested the technology by slipping data into emails sent to users in Hong Kong and China. The report, obtained by the GovernmentAttic nonprofit through a Freedom of Information Act request, said the “technology performed well in all tests” between February and June, 2010. The BBG confirmed the authenticity of that report to Fox News.

The agency’s testing proved that the FOE technology can transmit everything from RSS feeds to downloadable files and proxy web addresses (the latter can give users access to browse normally censored parts of the internet). I remember when Ho gave her speech at conference. She spoke slowly, as if English were not her native language. And she seemed out of place among all of the hackers with beards and long hair. But I could tell at the time the audience took her words very seriously, as she offered hope to hackers who risk criminal prosecution by creating ways for people to get around electronic censorship.

Ho said at that event that the program is the equivalent of a proxy-less RSS reader. It uses U.S.-based email programs such as Gmail as delivery vehicles. Typically, foreign governments censor web sites such as CNN.com by blocking the Internet Protocol (IP) address they use. The web sites respond by changing their web site IP addresses, or they send users to proxy servers. But the authorities can block the proxy servers whenever they find out about them. So users face the hassle of constantly switching proxy servers to get their news.

The censors can also use deep packet filtering to block sites containing certain keywords. Users can encrypt the data, making it harder to do real-time filtering. The Chinese government has also done things such as renaming the addresses of web sites such as Google so mail will go to the wrong web sites. The Chinese government also sought to impose censorship software, dubbed Green Dam Youth Escort, on all PCs sold in China. It backed off on that plan after a public outcry.

With FOE, Ho said she could use a specially formatted email to transfer RSS feeds or other types of news. It’s just like sending an email with HTML code in it. To do it, a user needs to create an email account that is hosted outside the censored country. The reason is that mail services in censored countries may censor FOE messages.

The client and mail server have to be encrypted to bypass the deep packet filtering. The user selects which feeds they want to receive. When the FOE server gets the request, it emails the feed back to the client’s email address, verifies the content, and then displays the feed on the client’s screen.

Ho said the FOE system is user-friendly. In 2009, she said the RSS feeds can be erased, and future versions might let a user delete the software quickly, in case authorities arrive. The FOE emails work with all operating systems. It can accommodate news features such as news feeds, podcasting, small file downloads, the distribution of proxy server locations and push announcements. It doesn’t work well with large files, proxy serving, or real-time apps such as Twitter, Ho said in 2009. FOE can work with mobile phones. Ho said at the time that the BBG was looking for programming help.

Evidently, the BBG got that help. The Fox report said there are other tools being used to battle foreign censors. The Alliance of Youth Movements, started under former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and continued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the help of Google and others, is teaching democratic groups how to use social media. Google created a call-in line on which Egyptians could leave a voice mail, which was then distributed via Twitter.


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  1. [...] firewalls and censorship, such as China and Iran, can still access their news. Without RSS, it makes it literally impossible for some countries across the globe to stay connected with the rest of the world. Restricted access [...]