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Haystack: Helping online users give government censors the slip

Haystack: Helping online users give government censors the slip

After last year's disputed elections in Iran, social networking sites like Twitter helped protesters organise and also served as a way to send news, videos and photos out to the rest of the world, showing what was really happening in the country. Iranian security forces worked to stop people from using these sites to communicate, just as other countries, such as China, have done in the past and continue to do so.

Government censors are becoming more sophisticated, and this is where encryption software Haystack comes in.

Haystack was custom-made in San Francisco for Iran as the first anti-censorship technology licensed by the U.S. government for export to Iran, the Christian Science Monitor reported last month. First, it "provides high-grade encryption of data, similar to that used when accessing a bank Web site. It then hides that data inside other normal data streams and makes it look like normal Internet traffic itself," which makes the original data difficult to detect and stop."

According to the network, Haystack clients connect to its servers, "which in turn talk to Web sites on behalf of our users." The group's motto is "Good luck finding that needle."

However, if Haystack's methods are compromised, users' communications would be secure.

"We use state-of-the-art elliptic curve cryptography to ensure that these communications cannot be read. This cryptography is strong enough that the NSA trusts it to secure top-secret data, and we consider our users' privacy to be just as important," according to the group's Web site.

Haystack is free of charge, and supported by outside funding. It is currently in the beta testing stage, and is expected to be released in the winter.

Haystack was created by 26-year-old Austin Heap, under the umbrella of the Censorship Research Center, a not-for-profit.

"The Internet for us has also been something that connects people, not a tool to be used in a campaign to violate what the United Nations considers basic human rights," Heap told the Huffington Post. "The primary difference between Haystack and other anti-filtering programs is that the data generated by Haystack looks "normal" -- it looks like one is visiting innocuous sites like and downloading pictures. Most traditional anti-filtering software is easy for an observer (like the government) to detect that a user is using it; Haystack doesn't do this, it 'cloaks' all of the data."


Leah McBride Mensching


2010-05-10 18:49

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