RealTime IT News

Hacktivists Make Software to Deliver Censored Content

Hacktivists, those using their hacking skills to promote social causes, have taken to ensuring a truly open Internet. This week, two major efforts have stepped forth to get content through government firewalls.

Peekabooty and Hacktivismo both released software this week that may change the way people get information, and may also have censoring governments scrambling for new ways to control information.

Peekabooty, a group that has been fighting the 21 countries that currently censor the Internet, released the open-source code for its program, which allows clients to evade most forms of DNS filtering by using a distributed collaborative privacy network. In addition, a global consortium of concerned hackers, known as Hacktivismo, released their own software, Camera/Shy, which allows censored material to be hidden within a standard graphic file on a Web Page.

The Peekabooty software is run by individuals throughout countries that do not censor the Internet that load the open source software onto their computers. A user in a country that censors the Internet connects to an ad hoc network of these computers, and a small number of randomly selected computers in the network retrieves the Web pages and relays them back to the user.

Most censoring nations use firewalls to prevent unwanted content from entering. However, the methodology of Peekabooty subverts the firewall, because the user is simply accessing some computer not on its "banned" list. The retrieved Web pages are encrypted using the de facto standard for secure transactions in order to prevent the firewall from examining the Web pages' contents. Since the encryption used is a secure transaction standard, it will look like an ordinary e-business transaction to the firewall.

Users in countries where the Internet is censored do not necessarily need to install any software. They merely need to make a simple change to their Internet settings so that the Peekabooty network mediates their access to the Web.

According to a white paper issued by iDefense, the system makes tracing the initial request extremely difficult. A chain of individual users, or nodes, that only know the IP address of where they are sending information to and where they have been sent it from, is created with each request. Because of this technique, called Virtual Circuits, executing a reverse-IP search would end up being extremely time consuming, requiring network logs of numerous ISPs.

"What Peekabooty has going for it, is that because it uses virtual circuit theory to map out the network, (authorities) will have a difficult time figuring out who the originator of the request is," said Barry Keane, an analyst for iDefense.

According to Peekabooty's Web site, the group expects governments to try to start battling to get around the software or attempting to shut them down. Despite this, they believe they have a good leg up on the authorities, because of the software's release in open source, which will allow mutations, and the support of the international hacker community.

Keane notes that because of the virtual circuits, it would be extremely difficult for any country could get a good grip on Peekabooty.

"Everything is breakable or defeatable to some point," said Keane. "For China or somebody to really get a hold on this or defeat this, they would have to really really tightly monitor all ISPs. It's going to be a lot of work."

Hacktivismo, for its part, is attempting to hide the content rather than its recipient. The release of Camera/Shy allows users to hide content within the photos contained on a normal Web Page.

The Camera/Shy product, which was designed for non-technical users, allows for a "one touch" encryption process, which delivers banned content across the Internet. Because the content is encrypted and is in the graphic file, government firewalls would not pick up on code words that would normally raise the red flag.

Utilizing LSB steganographic techniques and AES-256 bit encryption, the application enables users to share censored information with their friends by hiding it in plain view as ordinary .gif images.

The software automatically scans for and delivers decrypted content straight from the Web. It is a stand-alone, Internet Explorer-based browser that leaves no trace on the user's system.

Critics allege that both systems pose a significant threat, as they could be used to hide the address and identity of people trying to ride under the eye of the law.

By allowing the content to pass under the radar of government authority, content such as child pornography and terrorist sites, could be viewed by anyone more easily and is virtual anonymity.

"Any criminal organization that wants to check out certain Web sites on the Internet and don't want authorities to trace these requests back to their IP addresses could become part of the Peekabooty network, which could pass the request along an infinite number of nodes, and it would make it that much harder to trace back," said Keane.

The hacktivist groups, however, maintain that their software aims only to further the cause of allowing open access to information to all people.

Oxblood Ruffin, a spokesman for Hacktivismo and foreign minister of the hacker group CULT OF THE DEAD COW, feels that the criticism is misplaced.

"Camera/Shy expands the democratic experience, it does not diminish it," said the spokesman.

Following the events of September 11th, the group has received some unfavorable press regarding the possibility of terrorists using the software. Oxblood Ruffin feels these criticisms are off the mark.

"Any responsible software developer after 9/11 has to ask themselves, 'Does this software essentially expand democracy, or does it fundamentally diminish it?' We feel strongly that Camera/Shy represents a very solid yes," he said.

The issue of countries limiting access to Internet content is widespread, with 21 countries taking part in the practice.

The Associated Press reported that up to 300 major portal sites, including Yahoo!'s Chinese-language site, have signed a voluntary pledge to purge the Web of content that China's communist government deems subversive.

The news service reports that signers also pledged to monitor content of foreign-based Web sites and block those containing unspecified harmful information.

The MS Windows version of the Peekabooty software is now available for users to download and test at this site.