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Could State Department Funded Lantern Be Bigger, Better Tor?

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, October 22 2013

Lanterns in Singapore (Tallkev/Flickr)

Global Internet freedom is in decline. Authoritarian states like China and Iran routinely block social media and news websites. Half of the countries surveyed for the 2013 Freedom House report on net freedom have blocked political or social content, and nearly a third blanket block at least one blogging or social media platform. Anti-censorship tools exist, but the most popular and effective often buckle under the overwhelming demand for them in repressive countries.

In spite of that disheartening news, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. A new censorship circumvention tool called Lantern can provide Internet access to people in the censored world by connecting them to computers in the uncensored world through a "trust network." On Monday, Lantern CEO and lead developer Adam Fisk spoke with techies gathered at the monthly OpenITP Techno-Activist 3rd Monday (TA3M) in New York City. Over tacos and beer at the New America Foundation office, Fisk introduced Lantern and explained how it differs from other anti-censorship tools.

Lantern is still in beta testing mode, so they only have 229 users, but Fisk said it is already providing access to people in Iran and China. They will continue testing the user experience for people in restricted countries for another month before rolling it out to more people in the uncensored world, starting with diaspora communities. Lantern can, in theory, provide millions of access points to the Internet, but first millions of people in the uncensored world have to get on board. Without them, the endeavor will fail.

Lantern uses advanced peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to directly connect a computer in Tehran, for example, with a computer in Brooklyn, thereby circumventing the central network and any existing Internet blocks. The network connection will be dispersed between multiple computers running Lantern so as not to put undue stress on a single connection or computer operating system.

Other examples of applications that use P2P technology are Skype and LimeWire, which Fisk helped build. Working on LimeWire was his first job after college, and Fisk said even then he saw that the same P2P architecture could be used to get around censorship.

Explaining P2P technology gets complicated and overly technical quickly, which is why Lantern has produced a slick animated video to convey the gist of the project in an easily digestible way. The imagery in the video evokes things like the Underground Railroad and World War II safe houses. It explains to people in the uncensored world—the target audience of the ad—that by installing Lantern “you provide a new escape route for getting information in and out of censored countries.”

Much of Lantern's strength stems from the “trust network.” The program is invitation only, and users start by connecting with known and trusted Google Talk contacts. In order for two computers to connect, there must be mutual authentication. This makes it difficult for authoritarian governments to discover and block individual access points. With every new user, every new access point, the trust network becomes more resilient to censorship.

The costs for those providing access are negligible: downloading the software is free, and Lantern runs in the background without slowing down the computer operating system. For people in the censored world, the tool practically sells itself. Unlike virtual private networks (VPNs), which can be prohibitively expensive for many people in countries like China, Lantern is completely free. VPNs also work on a fixed set of servers with fixed IP addresses, which make them quite trivial to block if a government so desires. If the trust network grows large enough, Lantern should be significantly more resilient to blocking. Finally, users in the uncensored world should have more faith in Lantern, because they trust in their friends and their friends of friends to safeguard their information and activity, not some random company.

Previous anti-censorship tools, like the much-hyped Project Haystack, have gone down in flames due to security weaknesses. Unlike the proprietary Haystack, however, Lantern is completely open source and encourages outside review.

“The Tor guys described us in the past as the anti-Haystack,” said Fisk, “and I think there's some truth to that.”

Fisk explained that the advantages of open source software—mainly extensive public review—outweigh the risk that nefarious hackers could find weaknesses to exploit. Apparently reverse engineering Lantern would not be that big of a deal even if it was not open source. Fisk stressed that the important thing is that it works even though censors know exactly how it works.

Lantern privileges access and scale above all else, including anonymity. Fisk explained that while Lantern has some “anonymity properties,” they make no claims to anonymity in the way that Tor does.

Fisk has been working on Lantern for nearly three years. Early on, there were a few small grants from places like Internews, which Fisk compared to the angel investment a start-up might receive. The big windfall came in August 2011 when the State Department awarded Lantern a $2.2 million dollar grant.

After getting support from the State Department, Lantern was able to hire more developers. There are four full-time programmers, in addition to contractors, but everyone except Fisk is anonymous and known only by their GitHub handles (e.g. @PhilboydStudge and @oxtoacart).

Fisk said the State Department is “incredibly hands off”:

That's been one fascinating part about working with them, and I think this is incredibly unique to the State Department, but they're basically like, 'Look, we have this mission to spread democracy around the world. This is a part of that mission—this is the non-cynical view, for sure—we'll just give you this money; we support what you're doing. You submit quarterly reports and we'll just let you keep doing your thing.'

He added that the State Department never dictates how they should write Lantern, or how they should talk about it.

In 2013 alone, the State Department and USAID combined granted $25 million to groups working on counter-censorship technology and digital safety initiatives. Their funding of the popular circumvention tool Tor was recently headline news when it was revealed that the NSA is doing everything possible to crack it.

Fisk tried to explain that to me:

If you haven't done a lot of work with the government it's hard to realize that this person we work with in this weird cubicle in this corner of the State Department is totally different from this other dude in a cubicle across town at the NSA. It literally does come down to these men and women in cubicles in these horrible buildings in D.C.

At the TA3M event, one attendee asked about the use of Google Talk contacts in the creation of a trust network when Google has such a questionable history regarding the security and privacy of its users. Fisk responded that they would prefer not to use it, that they would even prefer not to have a State Department grant, but that it would make the project more difficult.

The takeaway seems to be that, even if the State Department, Internet corporations and authoritarian governments know how the tool works, the important thing is that Lantern prevails in spite of it all. We'll just have to wait and see if Fisk and his team can pull that off.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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