Hackers to release anti-censorship tool

Cult of the Dead Cow plans to launch a peer-to-peer tool at this summer's Defcon to fight government censorship of the Web

A computer hacking group best known for creating tools for hijacking computer systems is turning its hand to civil disobedience and plans to release an application that could scupper government and corporate censorship around the world.

The tool -- to be called Peekabooty -- will be based on peer-to-peer network technology. This allows data to be distributed directly between computer systems and has attained fame through the emergence of music-sharing technologies such as Napster and Gnutella. Peekabooty hosts will cooperate in a similar way to Gnutella -- without a central server -- but in this case will share and distribute controversial Web pages.

The group behind the application is the Cult of the Dead Cow, a team of white hat (non-criminal) computer hackers best known for producing security tools that exploit weaknesses in Microsoft software. Their best known tools are BackOrifice and BackOrifice2000, which allow a computer hacker to take control of computers running Microsoft operating systems.

A source close to the group said it plans to produce the tool for circumventing government Internet blocking at Defcon, the world's premiere computer security conference, to be held in Las Vegas this July.

According to the source, Peekabooty will enable those living in oppressive regimes to access prohibited material through fellow Peekabooty clients located in more liberal countries. The client grabs the requested content and sends it back to the original computer in a compacted and encrypted form that cannot be filtered out using conventional technology. Because there is no central authority, unlike Napster, it would be more problematic to control.

"[It's] completely distributed and impossible to shut down," said the source. "Users will be able to request proscribed web pages with a client through a distributed server cloud. An intelligent agent will be dispatched from the server to the web page, grab the content, zip it down, take it back to the server, then punt it back to the client."

Although the Internet is often portrayed as an untamed frontier, a number of national governments put considerable effort into controlling what information reaches their citizens through the Web. The Chinese government blocks access to certain news sources that are thought to be critical of its policies. It does this by restricting the material that comes into China at a number of key points. A handful of other Far East governments operate similar policies.

It's not just hardline governments that control Internet content, however. More liberal countries operating a policy to restrict what citizens can access include Australia, which prevents access to pornographic material, Germany, where Nazi memorabilia is restricted and France. A court in France famously ruled that the US based Internet company Yahoo! must prevent French Web users from viewing Nazi artefacts available via its auction site. In these countries, access to the Internet is controlled by making ISPs liable for hosting illegal content.

There already exist technologies designed to prevent the authorities from stopping material reaching individual Internet users. These include the Freedom Internet browser and Web sites like SafeWeb, although the Chinese government tries to restrict access to certain services including SafeWeb.

Ian Brown, a computer security researcher at University College London, believes that Peekabooty could prove a success once restricted material gets past Chinese Internet border controls and reaches the first host. Brown adds that the use of this technology, coupled with the growth of services like SafeWeb may cause the Chinese government to think about controlling encryption further.

Yaman Akdeniz, director of UK Internet liberties watchdog Cyber Rights & Cyber Liberties said that trying to apply different national laws to the Internet has always proved problematic and governments have often resorted to blocking access to information.

"Different countries have different moral and cultural backgrounds. That has been a puzzling issue." He said that defeating government censorship is a positive step towards freedom of information.

"Any technology that allows someone to access the Net without government restrictions is good," he said. "But governments will not like it."

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