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Censorship Encryption The Internet

Getting Around Web Censors With Flickr 81

Posted by timothy
from the until-they-block-flickr dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Life is about to become more difficult for countries trying to censor access to foreign websites. A system dubbed Collage will allow users in these countries to download stories from blocked sites while visiting seemingly uncontroversial sites such as Flickr." For visual learners: this earlier story at GigaOM explains the system with a diagram.
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Getting Around Web Censors With Flickr

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  • by grub (11606) <slashdot@grub.net> on Sunday August 15, 2010 @10:55AM (#33256808) Homepage Journal

    Countries which censor the Internet will have no problem labelling this as a "subversion tool" (or something similar) and make possession of it a crime.

    sad but true.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      True but irrelevant.
      China doesn't chase up every little breach of censorship. They couldn't, and they don't need to. Censorship is so evil and insidious because it manipulates the masses world view, at only a tiny level of effectiveness.

      Also, why does TFA lump "countries such as China and North Korea" together? They are so dissimilar, might as well be "countries such as China, Australia and N. America".

      North Korea has total control over all networked computers, and therefore has perfect censorship. This, or

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Pardon me for being the pedant and only addressing your last sentence, not your overall point that NK has little to do with China's censorship situation, but I need to say: Well, theoretical perfect censorship. If I can see user-generated text of any kind, I can sneak encypted data out of it past anything North Korea can throw at me (assuming that the text was seeded with data encrypted by a pre-agreed cipher). Even if I'm being directly supervised by some grunt with a semi-automatic breathing over my shoul
    • Re: (Score:1, Flamebait)

      We here call it a "circumvention device"

    • by Eivind (15695)
      Indeed. Infact Flickr is already (in it's entirety) blocked in for example Iran.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 15, 2010 @11:08AM (#33256858)

    This will just get sites like Flickr banned in places like China, Iran, or Australia; and nothing else will change

    • by ZeRu (1486391)
      China is everyone's favourite example for Internet censorship but some countries have even tougher filtering methods - for example, whitelisting rather than blacklisting sites.
    • Parent is insightful, not funny.
    • by ktappe (747125)

      This will just get sites like Flickr banned in places like China, Iran, or Australia; and nothing else will change

      Exactly. Not sure why your post was modded "Funny" instead of "Insightful", which it is. Where I work, Flickr is already blocked so I was surprised to hear it's not blocked in China, et al.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by perplexify (1878786)
        It's funny (in a sad, ironic kind of way) because Australia (one of the most 'free' countries in the world) is getting lumped in with China and Iran (two of the least 'free') due to a moron senator by the name of conroy who wants to censor our internet. I doubt they'd get away with banning Flikr in Australia so it would actually be a geniune circumvention here which makes the whole filtering thing completely pointless. Of course conroy would has an almost superhuman ability to ignore the facts. Hurray for d
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by MichaelSmith (789609)

      How about my forthcoming blog "heroes of the chinese revolution". It has lots of pictures and many of them have beautiful textures. Sky, water, so forth. All available in lossless formats.

    • by Meski (774546) *
      Ouch! At having Australia included in such company. Hopefully it won't end up happening. (if we can vote Fielding out of the equation this Saturday)
    • by drbrtsn (1812544)

      This will just get sites like Flickr banned in places like China, Iran, or Australia; and nothing else will change

      Huh, Flickr is already blocked in the UAE. Wait.....maybe I can access it on my Blackberry!

    • by definate (876684)

      *sigh*

      I am Australian, and I am so disappointed that we are now in a list of censorship states, with China and Iran.

      The Labor party is really fucking up.

      I just read that they plan to try and regulate (through forced classification) app store games/etc. Article here: Plans to classify phone game apps [adelaidenow.com.au]

      And just for clarification, anything that isn't "classified" will be banned by the filter. Classification costs between 470 AUD and 2,040 AUD which is (417 USD and 1,813 USD at today's prices).

      This was supposed t

    • by mdwh2 (535323)

      Indeed - the UK had no trouble blocking an (entirely legal) Wikipedia page. They were only found out because Wikipedia admins spotted a problem with accesses from the UK; to the viewer, it's just a silent false 404 that you get.

  • bottleneck? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by johnhp (1807490) on Sunday August 15, 2010 @11:09AM (#33256864)
    How does pushing content through a few major sites help spread it in censored areas? It seems like an authoritarian government could ban a few major websites more easily than hundreds of smaller ones.

    Maybe a torrent-like web server would be best for sharing censored information, where trusted web servers in free countries are the only uploaders on the network.
    • Re:bottleneck? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by idiot900 (166952) * on Sunday August 15, 2010 @11:33AM (#33256954)

      A system like this could presumably work through any site that hosts user-generated content. A repressive government would have to ban every service that doesn't allow them to tie each message to a real person. So they would have to block all of the Internet originating in the western world. Even for a place like China that would be pretty untenable.

  • But why all the fanfare? Unless it's still under testing, release it now...

    Aren't there all sorts of plots and conspiracies hidden in the classifieds?

    • Gee! If I only read TFA... Answers all the other posts too.

      Ironically, the software uses a data-encryption method called “steganography” to hide text inside images and other files...The researchers admit that it is likely the governments of various countries where the software might be used could discover the hidden messages and then block either specific users or social networking sites such as Twitter and Flickr...

  • "... including software pirates, child-porn distributors and other unsavory characters ..."

    Pirating != Stealing
    Pirating == Raping Children

    • by schon (31600) on Sunday August 15, 2010 @11:47AM (#33256998)

      Pirating != Stealing

      And for those who continue to confuse the two, I find this handy guide [flickr.com] to be beneficial.

      (and it's on Flickr to boot! :)

      • If Slashdot allowed image sigs, that would be mine. I like how he used the rubber piggy from Invader Zim.

        In fact here is a text version for use in sigs (it's previewing OK, hope /. doesn't mangle it):

        Not yours: [#] Yours: ( ) This is data piracy: [#] --> (#) This is theft: [ ] --> (#) See the difference?

      • by numbski (515011)

        I said it in the comments there, and I'll say it here:

        "Meanwhile what you have listed as piracy isn't piracy. It is a potential infringement of copyright.

        Piracy actually *is* theft. The most romanticized version of it is where one boat at sea attacks another boat at sea and steals whatever valuables were aboard.

        *THAT* is piracy. Piracy is also theft.

        Copying is copying. It may or may not violate someone else's rights."

    • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      Actually, Piracy == Stealing, specifically on the high seas or on an airplane or some similar situation (robbing a train could possibly be another form of piracy).

      From the free online dictionary:

      piracy Pronunciation (pr-s)
      n. pl. piracies
      1.
      a. Robbery committed at sea.
      b. A similar act of robbery, as the hijacking of an airplane.
      2. The unauthorized use or reproduction of copyrighted or patented material: software piracy.
      3. The operation of an unlicensed, illegal radio or television station.

      I believe what you actually mean is that software piracy is not stealing.

      Raping and pillaging is just a side effect of being a pirate, it is in no way part of the definition.

      I don't know anybody who would consider pirating to be equivalent to raping children, but apparently you do. You might want to have your head

      • by daveime (1253762)

        Raping and pillaging is just a side effect of being a pirate, it is in no way part of the definition.

        I think the term you are looking for is "perks of the job".

      • by McGiraf (196030)

        "I don't know anybody who would consider pirating to be equivalent to raping children, but apparently you do. You might want to have your head checked."

        It did not come from my head, it came the quoted part of the article.

    • by Xtifr (1323)

      Pirating != Stealing

      Indeed, many forms of stealing are or can be perfectly legal (i.e. stealing plots from Shakespeare, stealing a kiss, stealing away in the night), while all forms of piracy, from armed robbery on the high seas to simple copyright infringement, are illegal.

      Note, I'm assuming you're not one of those idiots who thinks English words like can have one and only one meaning. If I'm wrong, I apologize. :)

      • by daveime (1253762)

        ... to simple copyright infringement, are illegal IN CERTAIN JURISDICTIONS.

        FTFY

        Illegal in USA does not mean illegal everywhere, but you'd already know that because you're not one of those idiots who thinks English words like can have one and only one meaning.

  • by donscarletti (569232) on Sunday August 15, 2010 @11:23AM (#33256918)

    Idiots

    Right now, youtube, facebook, twitter and other "web 2.0" type user generated content sites are precisely the sites that are being blocked, for exactly this reason. Compared to Youtube and Facebook, blocking flickr will cause absolutely no backlash at all. If you want flickr to be blocked in China, then you're going about it the right way by publishing this story.

    Also, covert channels through tunnelling is already working quite well, there are many, many technologies to do this, of which steganography is only one. This achieves nothing but causing suspicion towards the remaining user generated content sites that are not blocked. Steganography is security through obscurity by definition, this only works if you keep it a secret. It it astounding how many well meaning idiots love freedom so much that they decide to utilise their freedom of speech by blurting out something stupid and causing trouble for a lot of other, innocent people without those freedoms.

    • by Threni (635302)

      Yeah, this plan might have worked were it not for Slashdot reporting on it! lol!

    • by Abstrackt (609015)

      You have to find some way to tell people the data exists, don't you? Now people not only know they have this method available to them, but announcing that there may be hidden data in pictures on Flickr as a great way to create a lot of work for someone who doesn't know exactly where to look.

    • I think flickr is already blocked and has been for a long time, in china. at least for some, it seems so.

      I was trying to return an item I bought from 'deal express' (many of you probably have heard of them). they are overseas and when you have to open an RMA for a defective item, they insist you photo the item. sigh, but ok, fine; I have a good flickr account and a good camera, in fact. I take a pic, send them the URL but they say they can't see it and instead insist I create a NEW account on photobucke

      • oops, sorry, I meant 'deal extreme'.

        its still referred to as DX and most people know it by that.

      • by orkysoft (93727)

        So you're one of those people who can't figure out how to send an email attachment? :-P

        • that also might not have worked; I don't think they were able to accomodate ANYTHING other than 'please use photobucket'.

          already having my own toplevel domain AND a good flickr account, I was not about to create a PB one just for them!

          can't remember how it ended (photo wise) but I did finally return the broken items and got a refund. but it was a HUGE hassle dealing with a company in china.

      • by donscarletti (569232) on Monday August 16, 2010 @03:03AM (#33261374)
        As of 2010-08-16 15:00 Beijing time, flickr is not blocked. Sounds like you were being fed a line by a lazy customer service rep. Apathetic handling of refunds transcends nationality, race, colour or creed.
    • by sadboyzz (1190877) on Sunday August 15, 2010 @01:42PM (#33257588)

      flickr is already blocked in China.

      After this many years of trying, I've found that all publicly known methods of circumventing censorship do not last, no matter how promising the technique may seem at first. There are (were) online forums where people would share SOCKS and HTTP proxies they find or own, but nowadays these gets blocked faster than you can post it. The only reliable solution I've found is to buy your own commercial VPN service and keep it to yourself. I rent a VM host in California and run OpenVPN which I share with some of my friends. We get pretty decent connection speeds here in China, and it's actually pretty cheap even by us third-world standards, especially if you share the cost among a few people.

      The only long term fix to this problem is, of course, to replace the communist (more like fascist nowadays) regime with a democratic government, which is an endeavor that may take a few more decades. In the meantime, I suggest buying a VPN service as a temporary workaround.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        flickr is already blocked in China.

        After this many years of trying, I've found that all publicly known methods of circumventing censorship do not last, no matter how promising the technique may seem at first. There are (were) online forums where people would share SOCKS and HTTP proxies they find or own, but nowadays these gets blocked faster than you can post it. The only reliable solution I've found is to buy your own commercial VPN service and keep it to yourself. I rent a VM host in California and run OpenVPN which I share with some of my friends. We get pretty decent connection speeds here in China, and it's actually pretty cheap even by us third-world standards, especially if you share the cost among a few people.

        The only long term fix to this problem is, of course, to replace the communist (more like fascist nowadays) regime with a democratic government, which is an endeavor that may take a few more decades. In the meantime, I suggest buying a VPN service as a temporary workaround.

        A third option is for already democratic countries to reduce immigration restrictions, and have China's best and brightest vote with their feet.

        • by sadboyzz (1190877)

          A third option is for already democratic countries to reduce immigration restrictions, and have China's best and brightest vote with their feet.

          Won't work. We Chinese are known to drop sleeper cell terrorist anchor babies all over the place. Eventually you will be forced to change your constitution.

          Seriously though, you are much more likely to get our "corruptiest and greediest" rather than our best and brightest. It's well known fact that our corrupt officials move their dirty wealth overseas, and when they sense a change in the wind, they'll escape and go for "investment immigration". The USA and Canada are among their favourite destinations. I d

        • by definate (876684)

          Mention that in any country, and you'd suddenly see the racism and nationalist pride come out. Though in some countries, they'd at least try to veil it in an economic or political argument.

          It would be good if citizenship was completely open and easy for people, we'd see a lot more pressure on governments to change. As it currently stands though (I'm someone who wants to emigrate) it's quite hard to move to most countries, especially if you're not "skilled".

        • by sznupi (719324)

          That would probably work at most as a safety valve for the regime.

      • The only long term fix to this problem is, of course, to replace the communist (more like fascist nowadays) regime with a democratic government

        Don't bet on it. I don't think Australia is intrinsically more inclined to being censored than other first-world, democratic countries - the majority of people are so scared of child porn trafficking that they will be OK with internet censorship as soon as their politicians find it politically convenient to bring it up.

      • The only long term fix to this problem is, of course, to replace the communist (more like fascist nowadays) regime

        O/T but, which Communist regime was ever not Fascist?

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        China is not currently blocking Flickr - I am in south east China and have Flickr open in a another tab - it is blocked occasionally but the delays involved in connecting to accounts are not that significant - evidence of this is the large number of Chinese Flickr users and the availability of Chinese Flickr streams. Facebook is blocked - but any number of proxies can assist there.

      • by sznupi (719324)

        Where & when "communist" was ever a precise label?

        And you know, ultimately it works both ways - governments are also a reflection of their society. Don't expect things to change too much after "democratization" (and I'm saying this living in place formerly behind the Iron Curtain), especially if the economy is already very much "modern."

    • What you really need to do is get it into sites that have a little more cred. Here's what you do, make a personal website that denotes some level of attention. My first thought is do some sort of hardware hack that makes it into Hack-a-day, Engadget, Wired, what have you. Get it slashdotted. Somehow use that to attract higher scale news that is looking for a feel good technology story to make people not fear the singularity. Then the image is on some news website. Other people write websites, google for pic
      • by neminem (561346)
        Or just do what Petra did, and get people to start using your image as their sig/avatar, until it goes memetic. (Yeah, this idea is a bit old. I actually made a forum avatar that has her message steganographically written into it a while back, just for my own amusement.)
  • The diagram was essential for my understanding of the story. But, much better than that, you taught me a fantastic euphemism for my Internet inflicted AADD.

  • It's great that no-one in China reads /. or reads English, or would ever think to find out what's going on at the Usenix security conference.

    No doubt this will completely fly under their radar and will be an huge success...

    Oh wait...

    Seriously, what -- exactly -- is the point of this software? It seems to be ridiculously easy to get around, especially as it's being fully advertised here on /. and other news sites.
    • Well it is just another steganography tool. The real issue is getting the tool to people in China without getting yourself or the people using the tool arrested. It is a bit of a bootstrapping problem, if you think about it: you need to sneak some data through the great firewall in order to sneak more data through the great firewall.
  • Summary: fetches page, renders to image, posts to Flickr or similar, and user views that

    So, expect Flickr and similar to be blocked shortly.

    • by xiando (770382)

      Summary: fetches page, renders to image, posts to Flickr or similar, and user views that So, expect Flickr and similar to be blocked shortly.

      I doubt countries who block parts of the Internet, such as Denmark and China, will start blocking every site who allows users to upload images. I also doubt any government will are much, if at all, about this because it requires some (other) way of getting the masses informed regarding what site/image they should go look at in order to get some secret text.

  • People keep talking about steganography as if it didn't alter the look of the image so that it seemed to have been produced by a raster from the 80s: The least significant digit shows up visibly in gradients and fades. Sure, you have to know to look for it, it's a subtle effect to the untrained eye, but still.

    • Works much better on natural camera images that already have some noise. At reasonably low bitrates it really is invisible.

  • by John Pfeiffer (454131) on Sunday August 15, 2010 @11:53AM (#33257026) Homepage

    I had a nice chuckle when I read in TFA that this 'normally requires specialist software', when I've embedded .zip files in .jpg images using the DOS copy command. This should not be rocket surgery, even for non-savvy folks. It's really like 1+1=2, really.

    • These days, the DOS copy command is specialist software.

    • by Fumus (1258966)

      Last I checked, this only worked with RAR files. Something to do with JPG not bothering to check the end of the file for content and RAR not bothering with content until the first recognized sequence of a RAR file is found.

      Anyway, if somebody wants to try it out under Windows, open the command prompt (Win+R, type cmd and enter) navigate to your image and RAR file and type:
      copy /b image.jpg + archive.rar secret.jpg

      Now drag your secret file into WinRAR when you want to see the 'hidden' content.

      • iirc, it works with ZIP for exactly the same reason. ZIP ignores any data BEFORE the ZIP header.

        I could be misremembering though... I just took one of my old files, and WinRAR opened it with both ZIP and RAR extensions... And I'm too lazy to make a new one and find out, lol

    • Rocket surgery? <chuckle>
  • yah... don't block flickr, its not like they are one of the BIGGEST porn sites in the world or anything!
  • by xiando (770382) on Sunday August 15, 2010 @02:55PM (#33257932) Homepage Journal
    If Alice creates the anti-government document and wants Bob to read it then she is probably fine with embedding the picture in a picture which is then uploaded to any of the thousands of sites who allow people to read it if she already has some pre-arranged agreement with Bob regarding where the picture will be uploaded. However..

    If Alice wants to publish the anti-government document document and she wants thousands+ to read it then just how would she go about getting the masses to read this using the hide-in-image option? eh?

    There are already so many ways Alice can give a secret message to Bob and most of them do not involve computer technology.

    This just seems dumb if Alice wants to publish something and she wants the masses to read it. China and Norway do not torture people for reading the wrong thing on the Internet, they torture people who publish something they don't like (such as information about NATOs false-flag terror operations).

    Tor (torproject.org) still works in China as long as you use bridges and Tor works just fine with or without bridges in Norway. Publishers who want readership beyond their four hundred close friends are likely better off publishing their text using the Tor technology and those who have censored Internet access are also likely better off using Tor.
  • I recently visited Dubai and Flickr was already blocked there. I assume the rule is countrywide in the whole of the United Arab Emirates, nut just Dubai alone.

Computers are unreliable, but humans are even more unreliable. Any system which depends on human reliability is unreliable. -- Gilb

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