A Tricky New Way to Sneak Past Repressive Internet Censorship

All over the world, walls are going up around the internet.

For years, autocratic regimes have been in a race to heighten those walls, as their citizens develop taller and taller ladders. The more they filter and block, the more their citizens come up with clever technical solutions to access the uncensored truth. There is mounting evidence, however, that repressive regimes are opting to just shut down access to the open internet entirely—and that such blackouts could become permanent.

A team of cybersecurity researchers believe they have come up with a clever new way to fight back: a trojan horse. Specifically, a satellite feed designed to look like a television station, which actually carries a payload of uncensored news and information. It’s a particularly retro solution to a very modern problem.

The program, dubbed eQsat, has been tested and is ready to be put into action during the next internet shutdown—whether it’s in Russian-occupied Ukraine, Iran, or one of the many repressive regimes that regularly block internet access.

The cybersecurity firm behind the program, eQualitie, has spent years developing tools designed for civil society in countries with aggressive internet filtering. Its mobile browser, Ceno, connects users to the open internet and serves content peer-to-peer. When a particular website is blocked or throttled, Ceno grabs a copy of the website supplied by another user who can access the site normally.

Ceno’s weakness—like all peer-to-peer services—is that it still requires some connection to the outside world to deliver blocked content. During a total shutdown, Ceno’s peer-to-peer connections are severed as well.

There are some unreliable solutions to this problem. In some cases, mobile internet or Wi-Fi can be broadcast into an area experiencing an internet shutdown—there have been plans to try to broadcast a cellular or Wi-Fi signal from Finland into Russia, for example. In North Korea, balloons with USB keys attached bring news and entertainment into one of the most heavily censored countries in the world.

But cell signals can be jammed, Starlink terminals can be triangulated, and balloons can be intercepted. The best way to deliver information into a closed country without being caught or thwarted, Jason Roks tells WIRED, is steganography: the act of camouflaging information inside another message. And eQsat is the answer to the question “How do you blend in the most?”

Roks and the team at eQualitie rented space on commercial satellites and began broadcasting their own television channel to countless home satellite receivers throughout Asia and Africa. But should anyone be flipping through the channels, the eQualitie station will be static or color bars. Anyone who records the channel to a USB key, however, would discover that one of the audio tracks is, in fact, a compressed file. Extracted on a computer, it reveals a wealth of information.

“So this is a mechanism we developed to replenish from the outside,” Roks says. “We partnered with dozens of news organizations to, basically, take a snapshot of their websites and—very much like Internet Archive, the Wayback Machine—we keep a version of their site. And we update them daily, quarterly, whatever that basis is. And that works out to about, all those sites for Russia and Ukraine, about a gig and a half of data.” That data, once extracted, can be fed into the BitTorrent network, and can update the cache for their Ceno browser.

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