Also at INFOWARCON, I heard a very interesting but lamentably short talk by Austin Heap, the founder of Haystack, a small company in San Francisco that is a spin-off of the Censorship Research Center. Haystack’s product is software which can be run off of a flash drive or a CD so that nothing incriminating is on the hard drive. It allows Iranians to surf the Web freely.
Haystack put extensive research into determining precisely how the Iranian government filters the web and has designed the software specifically to counter those measures. In broad terms, Haystack’s software both encrypts signals and hides them inside innocuous-looking traffic. Austin says that he is prepared for the Iranian government to adjust its filtering in response to Haystack’s efforts and that he has another generation or two of strategies ready to roll out when that happens.
Haystack is also preparing software for two additional countries, which he named to me when I chatted with him after his talk. However, I noticed that he declined to name them on NPR, so I shan’t here. Suffice to say, that one of them is in the news a lot. Haystack’s efforts there could turn out to be of very important to American national securityover the long term. Right now, Haystack is in the research phase, determining how each of these countries do their filtering, so it will be a good while before the new software makes its appearance.
If you want to get a sense of Austin’s talk at INFOWARCON, you can listen to him on NPR’s “On the Media” where he also appeared last weekend. I’ve got to say that watching this guy–a kid, really–in his blue jeans, long hair, sunglasses pushed up on his head talking from notes on his i-Phone standing in front of a room of military officers, defense contractors, and assorted inside-the-Beltway types made me proud to be an American.
I can’t mention this topic without pointing to the work of Evgeny Morozov, a native of the bastion of democracy known as Belarus (ha!), who is deeply skeptical about the democratizing power of the Web. Frankly, I don’t agree with him, but his arguments cannot be ignored in this context. See, for instance, his “How Dictators Watch Us On the Web.” At base, Morozov’s argument is that the Web (and new media generally) do provide useful tools for dissidents but that it enables government repression to an even greater extent, primarily by giving the government sources of intelligence about the identity of dissidents and the links among them.