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Telex Would Work, But Is It Overkill? 92

Slashdot regular contributor Bennett Haselton wrote in this week to say that "The proposed "Telex" anti-censorship system could technically work, but unless I'm missing something, it would more cost-effective to spend the same resources on fighting censorship using existing technologies." His essay on the subject follows.

Professor Alex Halderman published a paper in July describing a new anti-censorship system called Telex, whereby users in censored countries could request banned websites by sending an encrypted request to an SSL-enabled website (i.e., a Web address beginning with https://) outside of their country -- even if the owner of the SSL-enabled website is not participating in the scheme. Since encrypted communications usually contain some random variation, that random variation can be used to embed hidden messages, which can then be decoded by any third-party observer who intercepts the communication and knows how to decode the hidden message. The third-party observer still cannot decode the original encrypted communication between the end user and the SSL-enabled website -- SSL is designed to be unbreakable by all but the intended recipient -- but the observer can decode the "side message" that was designed to be intercepted in transit. So a Telex-enabled router, in the process of passing the communication along, would notice the hidden request for a banned website, and pass the requested content back to the original user.

By analogy, suppose Mrs. Smith wants to send a letter to a friend. Mrs. Smith knows the letter will be sealed, and supposedly unopenable by the postman. But Mrs. Smith also has many choices of colored envelopes to use, and she has agreed with the postman on a color-coded system -- red for "Meet me tonight at the Motel 6", blue for "Not tonight, he suspects something" -- that the postman can "decode" when he picks up the envelope for delivery. The choice of envelope color is the "random variation" inherent in the sending of the message, which the message sender can use to send a "side message" to anyone who passes it along and who knows the system. The postman -- who is analogous to the Telex-enabled router -- has no access to the original sealed message inside the envelope, but he understands the side message just fine. (A Telex user may have no control over what routers their messages pass through, though, so they simply have to hope that there are enough Telex-enabled routers on the Internet that one of them will pick up the message and decode it. Imagine many different amorous mail carriers in the Postal Service, and any one of them who finds the colored envelope will be happy to show up at the appointed time, if Mrs. Smith is not picky.)

The novel feature of Telex is that it would not require the cooperation of the owner of the SSL-enabled website in order to work. You could send an encrypted communication to any website -- for example -- and any Telex-enabled routers along the pathway traveled by the connection, would be able to decode the embedded message hidden in the randomness of the encryption. By contrast, for a user to make use of a typical proxy website like Vtunnel, the owner of the Vtunnel website has to set up the site as a proxy; this means the supply of such sites is limited to those websites whose owners have installed proxy software, and the censors have a greater chance of finding and blocking them all. Telex, on the other hand, would continue to work as long as the user in the censored country was able to access any SSL-enabled website, as long as their request happened to pass through a Telex-enabled router.

So far, so good. But this would presumably require an investment of at least several million dollars by any major backbone provider who wanted to try it, by re-configuring their major routers to speak the Telex protocol, and then potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for a sustained long-term effort. (As Halderman says, "We like to envision this technology as a possible government-level response to government-level censorship.") So here's my question: If any backbone provider (or government entity) wanted to go to that trouble to support the cause of fighting Internet censorship, why wouldn't it be much more straightforward for them to just set up proxy websites themselves?

Professor Halderman didn't respond to my inquiry on that point. The Telex FAQ notes that censorious governments can easily block new proxy sites once they find out about them. But in many censored countries, most proxy sites are not blocked, either because the government isn't trying, or they can't keep up. In China, hardly any proxy sites are blocked at all, as the government seems to put more of their resources into suppressing local dissent directly. Meanwhile in Iran, the censors do put more resources into actually blocking proxy sites -- but because Iran is on the U.S. State Department's embargo list, Iranian censors can't buy Internet censoring software from U.S. companies, so they have to find and block the sites themselves. As a result, newly released proxy sites often stay unblocked longer in Iran than they do in other Middle Eastern countries that use U.S.-made blocking software. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, for whatever reason, doesn't seem to block proxy sites at all for the time being. (Saudi Arabia is a strange outlier, since most conservative Islamic countries that filter the Web, also block proxy sites as well. It's not clear why Saudi Arabia doesn't.) So if a government or a philanthropist wants to help the cause of fighting censorship, just set up some proxy sites and pay to keep them running -- and you'll be helping the residents of all of those countries right away, for starters. This is in fact what Voice of America (through their various proxy programs) and the founders of UltraSurf (a privately funded network of anti-censorship servers) have been doing all along.

Even in the case of countries like U.A.E. and Yemen that are reasonably quick at finding and blocking proxy sites (as a result of using Western-made blocking software), the most cost-effective way to help these users is probably to set up more proxy sites, hosted at different locations and with perhaps with legitimate-looking "decoy" content, so that U.S. censorware companies can't keep up. My experience has been that the more money you spend (using unique IP addresses, buying .com domains instead of cheap .info ones, and setting up lots of proxies so that each one is sent to only a subset of your target audience), the longer the proxy sites last. You can also use proxy-like services (such as Tor, Hotspot Shield and UltraSurf) to route traffic through dedicated servers, to circumvent censorship in a way that is more transparent and convenient to the end user.

In short, existing proxy sites (and proxy-like services) do the job pretty well for many censored countries, and a massive cash expenditure on setting up more proxies (equivalent to the cost of setting up the Telex system) would probably be enough to demolish all other national filtering schemes completely. The software and tools to run proxy sites have already been tried and tested; all it takes to run them is money. Telex, by contrast, would require backbone providers to alter the architecture of their systems -- which means large-scale testing, isolation of any problems that arise, and countless other potential headaches. And that's not even counting the fact that censorious countries might detect which backbone providers are using Telex, and block all traffic from their countries to any sites hosted on those networks.

So I think Telex is a brilliant technical achievement, and I'd be happy if it got deployed, but I'd be scratching my head as to why the backbone providers (or the government, or whoever sponsored the effort) decided to kill a gnat with a flamethrower. I deal in flyswatters for a living, and they get the job done.

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Telex Would Work, But Is It Overkill?

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