German hackers have constructed a route around the great firewall of China. The Chaos Computer Club said its technology will help athletes and journalists travelling to Beijing for the Olympic Games to circumvent censorship.
Visitors to China are being offered USB sticks containing a browser that connects via the TOR proxy network. These "Freedom Sticks", regular USB drives with pre-installed copies of the TorBrowser and Torprojects software, will only be available during the two-week period of the games. The Chaos Computer Club has also set up a dedicated micro-site that offers separate downloads of the software here.
In a parallel move, German digital rights activist group FoeBuD is offering similar "privacy dongles" through its web store for sale at €20.
TOR is a worldwide network of servers, run by volunteers, that provides a means to anonymise data sent over the internet. Information sent over the network is encrypted and routed through different servers on the TOR network.
China uses a network of filtering and blocking technologies, mostly supplied by Western technology firms, to block access to sites about Falun Gong, reports of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the Tibet independence movement. Until recently news reports on the BBC were also blocked.
Using proxies to get around these controls and browser sites isn't hard (at least for the tech-savvy) but maintaining anonymity is a problem, which is where the TorBrowser software and freedom sticks come in. Using the technology to send data out of China anonymously is another potentially useful application. The disadvantage of slower download speeds that come from using an anonymiser network is a minor drawback in comparison.
Chaos Computer Club is offering the technology partly to offer an easy way around Chinese censorship restriction but also to make a political point much closer to home.
Controversial new German laws on data retention may make it a criminal offence to operate TOR network nodes. The regulations are the subject of an appeal to the German Federal Constitutional Court.
"We are calling upon the German authorities to stop criminalizing the operators of servers of the TOR network. The behavior of the authorities is detrimental to the people in oppressive states, whose lives are at risk. China is only one of many examples", said Björn Pahls of the Chaos Computer Club. ®