Why The Remarkably Similar Circumvention Tools uProxy and Lantern Are Not Overkill
BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, October 24 2013
Not all anti-censorship tools were created equal. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Take uProxy, for example, one of several new tools Google Ideas launched at their Summit meeting in New York City this week. UProxy is a browser extension that connects people in censored countries to the Internet through people in uncensored countries. Sound familiar? It should. Although seeded by Google Ideas, it was built by developers at the University of Washington and Brave New Software. That's right, Brave New Software, the same organization behind the anti-censorship tool Lantern, profiled earlier this week by techPresident, which also uses peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to circumvent Internet blocks.
Adam Fisk, founder and president of Brave New Software, consented to another interview with techPresident to explain why uProxy (or Lantern) isn't overkill.
These are the promotional videos for each tool, in case you need a quick introduction:
Lantern was already in the works when Fisk started talking to Lucas Dixon, an engineer at Google. Although they originally envisioned building “Lantern 2.0,” Google eventually decided to market it as a separate thing entirely: uProxy. But Fisk still describes it as “a proof of concept” for Lantern.
— Adam Fisk (@adamfisk) October 22, 2013
Fisk and his team had a significant head start on Lantern before they started working on uProxy, so Lantern is miles ahead in terms of usability. As I wrote earlier this week, it is already providing unfiltered access to the Internet for users in Iran and China. UProxy, on the other hand, is still closed source. Lead engineer Dixon told Mashable they “don't want people to start using it before, actually, it's safe and secure.” Fisk says it will be a while before uProxy is ready for use.
One major difference between the two tools is that uProxy is a browser extension whereas Lantern is software. The big edge Lantern has here is that the software will run in the background as long as the computer is on, whereas with uProxy the person providing access must have the browser open.
UProxy runs on programming called Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC), which enables browser-to-browser connections for things like video chat and P2P file sharing. The hope is that the sheer number of innocuous communications—like phone calls to Grandma in Tulsa—will disguise uProxy traffic from the eyes of prying censors. Fisk explained how this will work, but with a caveat:
I don't want to overstate this because it's really extremely hard to disguise web traffic. The theory, however, is that WebRTC and particularly what are called reliable data channels (reliable data channels are able to transfer files that are a part of a web page versus transferring a voice call, for example) will soon be ubiquitous in first class browsers. A lot of sites will undoubtedly start using those data channels, which will provide a lot of "cover traffic" for uProxy. Basically normal use of WebRTC reliable data channels will look like all other use of reliable data channels, so it will be difficult for censors to distinguish uProxy traffic from other traffic in order to block it.
If WebRTC had been ready when he started building Lantern, Fisk would have used it because of its traffic masking properties. As it is now, however, it might be better that Lantern is downloadable software, because it runs constantly.
“The ideal,” says Fisk, “would be to have an app that always runs in the background but that also worked through the browser like WebRTC. Right now that's just not possible.”
Another major difference between uProxy and Lantern is that uProxy will facilitate one-to-one connections, whereas Lantern will connect you through your direct contacts, as well as friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. These set-ups have their own advantages and disadvantages—with uProxy's one-to-one connection, it is easier for network monitors in countries like China and Iran to see social connections and infer information from the network. On the other hand, because Lantern connects users out of their immediate circle, users risk connecting with people they don't trust at all.
In the future, Fisk envisions both tools becoming a bit more like the other: uProxy will eventually start spreading proxy access across multiple peers, and Lantern will reduce the trust circle by a degree or two.
Both tools are young—uProxy basically an infant, and Lantern taking its first baby steps as I type—but Fisk has big dreams for them both. He envisions adding encrypted chat, encrypted email, and encrypted voice and video calling. He would also like to add Tor-like security to the connections between second and third degree contacts in the trust network to provide users additional privacy protection.
Fisk addressed the future of uProxy and Lantern:
The idea going forward is that Lantern will both continue to contribute to the core technology in uProxy and will integrate that same technology into future versions of Lantern. This will in part allow us to experiment with the two different approaches to see what's working better and why. That doesn't necessarily mean we'll consolidate on a single model but rather that its useful to have multiple approaches so we can see what works and what doesn't for different scenarios.
The close and complicated relationship between uProxy and Lantern illustrates the close and complicated relationship between the community of developers working on circumvention technology. Fisk really wanted to drive this point home:
uProxy, Tor, Lantern, etc. are all ultimately after the same goals of free and open access to information while keeping users safe. . . The various designs all have inherent strengths and weaknesses, but the important part is that we're pushing the capabilities of these tools forward with the goal of building a more effective Internet that's inherently less susceptible to single points of control and that inherently in its design preserves free and open access to information.
Yesterday Lantern's Twitter account tweeted that the uProxy website has already been blocked in Iran, and it's not even a functional tool yet.
— getlantern.org (@getlantern) October 23, 2013
In times like these (and places like Iran) it's nice to have a Plan B lined up. When it comes to anti-censorship tools and developers, less is certainly not more.
Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.