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Monday, 15 July, 2002, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Hackers target web censorship
A rabbit
Does this innocent picture have a hidden message?
Well-intentioned hackers are creating tools to help people circumvent web browsing controls in countries where the net is censored.

The group of technology experts have produced two programs that help people swap messages that would otherwise be banned or to set up their own networks that help them keep in touch.

The programs, which are the result of two years of work, should make it much more difficult for traditional web control systems to spot and stop messages they consider unwelcome.

The creators of the programs say they have worked hard to ensure that anyone can use them, not just the technically gifted.

Scrambled message

Both programs are the work of a group of hackers calling itself Hacktivismo, which is dedicated to creating technology that can be put to socially useful ends.

The first program, which was unveiled at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference in New York at the weekend, is called Camera/Shy and allows people to hide messages inside images.

The program, which is used via a familiar web browser, allows people to insert encrypted messages into pictures created with the well-known gif format.

Chinese internet users, AP
There are restrictions on net use in China
Oxblood Ruffin, spokesman for the Hacktivismo group, said Camera/Shy was the first step in sharing the privilege of free speech with net users whose access to the web was restricted.

The Windows software also lets people search for, grab, decrypt and read images prepared with the Camera/Shy software.

Camera/Shy scrambles messages using the Rijndael algorithm recently adopted by the US Government for its approved encryption system.

The governments of countries such as China and Singapore seek to limit the sites that citizens can look at and the sources they can consult for news.

Some even keep an eye on the messages that people pass back and forth.

Peer pressure

The second program prepared by the group could have potentially wider-reaching effects.

The Six/Four protocol works like the popular peer-to-peer systems that let members share music and movies with others using the software.

The software allows users to create their own virtual network on the internet that should be invisible to anyone but its own members.

The virtual network should also be invisible to the firewalls and filtering systems that many regimes use to block access to parts of the web they consider unsavoury.

The software is called Six/Four after the date of 4 June, 1989, when Chinese authorities cracked down on democracy protests being held in Tiananmen Square.

The software is due to be released in late 2003.

Other hacker groups have also produced tools to help people avoid the attention of repressive regimes.

One called Peek-a-Booty also seeks to help people bypass firewalls and get access to all the resources on the internet.

Another, called Privaterra, helps human rights activists and groups communicate securely to ensure that governments are not spying on their work.

See also:

06 May 01 | Science/Nature
13 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
26 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
19 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
17 Oct 01 | Science/Nature
31 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
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