Speaker: This is The Takeaway from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with WGBH Radio in Boston.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and we're talking more about Cuba.
Music: You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, according to this classic piece by Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution will not be televised. Ever since the Arab Spring of 2013 and the Ferguson Protest of 2014, it's been pretty clear that social media is going to play an important role in future uprisings and protests, which is undoubtedly why some governments have begun using communications blackouts as a tool of oppression and why some innovators are responding with censorship circumvention software.
With me now to discuss one of these products with a very hard-to-say name 'censorship circumvention software' is Keith McManamen, who is a strategic analyst at Psiphon. Keith, thank you for being here.
Keith McManamen: Thank you for having me on.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Keith, talk to us about Psiphon and how it's operating right now in Cuba.
Keith McManamen: As you mentioned, at Psiphon, we work on what's called censorship circumvention technology, which refers to essentially a variety of techniques that can be used for anti-censorship online.
In a large and growing number of countries in the world, access to information is restricted. In fact, it can be restricted down to a highly granular level. For example, individual websites, domains containing specific keywords, or even particular types of or entire categories of web traffic.
As we saw in the Cuban context, the government responded to the protests by blocking access to social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and messaging applications, like WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal.
Psiphon Technology is effective at bypassing this type of filtering. You run a simple-to-use app on your device that routes your connection through a server in one of a few dozen open internet regions around the world and establish an encrypted tunnel through which you securely run your web browser, your applications, and all the traffic from your device. Basically, circumventing censorship with Psiphon involves peering to the censor that you're someone else, somewhere else, or looking for something other than you're looking for.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I got to say, as you're describing it towards the end there, I'm thinking, "Okay, I get how that works in a way that makes us maybe want to cheat or if you're talking about moving around the censorship of a repressive government, but that also sounds like it could have some nefarious purposes as well."
Keith McManamen: We tend to not be concerned with what specifically users are accessing. We don't know that information. We don't basically like if you treat the internet as a resource of a global resource of information as one kind of integral object, then what goes on between you and your internet connection is the user's own prerogative.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How is this technology different than, for example, the VPN technology that has been used in Nigeria to move around the Twitter ban that the government imposed?
Keith McManamen: In the Cuban example, Internet Measurement researchers determined that the Cuban censors were blocking the messaging apps through something called a TCP reset packet that was injected during the TLS handshake. A simplified explanation of that is that encrypted connections taking place over the internet, they do require a part of that transaction to happen in the clear.
I'm communicating with some server somewhere. I say I want to set up an encrypted connection with it. It says that sounds good to me. What kind of encryption do you want to do? The censors or the ISP can basically launch an attack by inserting a fake-- These reset packets have a functional purpose in web traffic. In normal circumstances, it will be used to inform one of the two parties that there's a problem in the communication and that that connection should stop.
An adversary can inject one of these packets that basically disrupts the connection from ever happening and cause that connection to terminate. We heard that within Cuba, VPN connections were also blocked in the same manner. VPNs can have anti-censorship properties, but the vast majority are designed for normal network conditions and will be susceptible to those kind of disruptions.
When we're talking about a circumvention tool like Psiphon, it's designed to basically resist attempts to directly interfere with our network traffic, or our connections from being established. The way that it does that is by essentially obfuscating the nature of the traffic. It's using transport protocols that are difficult to detect or emulate many of the most common types of web traffic to basically be indistinguishable from random bytes on the internet.
Melissa Harris-Perry: My understanding is that, at the peak, there were about 1.4 million Cubans making use of the internet through this technology. How did they find it? How did people know to make use of this circumvention technology?
Keith McManamen: Word of mouth is often a key driver of circumvention tool adoption. In a place like Cuba where there's relatively low levels of digital literacy, word of mouth is a key factor in terms of people finding out what tools are working. In this case, there were-- The landscape of tools that could be effective on those networks was extremely restrictive. Psiphon was one of the only things that was keeping people online.
Internet users will be resourceful and resilient in these kinds of situations. They will find ways to maintain communications with each other and maintain access to information. This is a phenomenon that we've definitely seen before. Obviously, the adoption of circumvention tools in this context was completely unprecedented, but now that we've seen basically a population scale deployment of circumvention tools there, people will be ready for future internet disruptions.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Keith McManamen is strategic analyst at Psiphon and making me feel a little bit like I'm in a spy movie today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Keith McManamen: Thanks a lot.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.