Hivos.org Interview with Karl Kathuria
Q&A: Open Source Psiphon Helps Iraqi Netizens Access the Internet
Q&A: Open Source Psiphon Helps Iraqi Netizens Access the Internet
Since mid-June, citizens in Iraq have been experiencing varying degrees of blocked access to the Internet. The Iraqi Government’s decision to block parts of the Internet is a violation of Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, "Everyone has the right to … seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
One of the tools that is being utilised by some Internet users in Iraq is Psiphon. Hivos had the opportunity to chat with Karl Kathuria, VP Commericial Management at Psiphon, Inc., about how his company is helping make the Internet accessible in Iraq despite blocking by the government.
What is Psiphon and what does it do?
Psiphon is a software company that helps millions of people around the world access content that is otherwise unavailable to them. It makes use of a number of different Internet protocols, combined with an ephemeral cloud-based network, to keep people connected regardless of any attempts to block network access.
Psiphon began as a Citizen Lab project at the University of Toronto. The first version was released to the public in December 2006 as a circumvention system. The early versions of Psiphon demonstrated that people were not only looking for ways to access blocked content, but that people around the world were willing to help each other get connected and stay connected.
Since that time, Psiphon has launched web proxy software, as well as native versions for Windows and Android mobile devices. We put a lot of effort into making sure our software is easy to get and easy to use, which has led to an amazing number of people choosing to use our software to access content and to talk with each other over social media platforms.
Our aim is to keep people connected, to make sure that everyone has equal access to the same content and services that people in Canada take for granted. Keeping the channels of communication open is vital for ensuring that discourse can take place and helping to meet the standards stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Psiphon is “open source”, meaning we make available all source code that we develop and publish any changes we make. This allows technical experts to assess and comment on the security of our software.
How were your services affected when the Iraqi Government shut down the Internet?
We started to receive reports on 13 June 2014 that social media sites were being blocked in Iraq, and that a lot of people were starting to use Psiphon. Over that weekend, we suddenly had over half a million unique users per day accessing the Internet through our software. One week later, that number had grown to almost 1.8 million users.
Our network is designed to be resilient to blocking, and to be scalable enough to cope with demand. The amount of people suddenly using our software from inside Iraq was another test of our ability to provide this service. It was certainly a challenge, but we managed to redirect resources in order to increase our capacity and make sure Psiphon was accessible to anyone who wanted it.
During Iraq’s Internet blockade, we read reports about some networks being cut off completely. We helped news reporters verify such reports by providing information from our network. While we see a spike in people using Psiphon when content is blocked, a complete Internet cut-off is something we can’t help with. What we can do during a complete cut-off is to help verify what the outage means for people. It’s more than just routes on a network, it’s about showing the impact in the number of people who are able to access the Internet.
For a brief period of time at the beginning of July, the Internet appeared to be “unblocked” again in Iraq. Obviously we saw a decrease in the number of people using our software, but it looked like a lot of people continued to use it. After a few days of access, sites were again blocked, and the sharp increase happened again. Right now, we’re seeing another sharp increase, and we are making sure our network is equipped to cope with demand.
How does the software work?
Our software creates a secure tunnel between the end user and the Psiphon network. The Psiphon network then fetches content, and sends it back to the end user over that tunnel. Most connections use obfuscated SSH [“Secure Shell”], which is basically a way for computers to talk to each other without revealing the content of what is said.
How can users start using Psiphon?
There are a couple of different ways to get Psiphon. You can download it from the Google Play Store or it can be sent to you via email. If someone sends a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org, they will receive two messages. The first message will be a link to download the software, and the second email will have both versions of the software attached. It’s small enough to get through most email systems, and has some very simple instructions attached. Most people will be able to just load the software and start browsing straight away.
What measures does Psiphon take regarding issues of users’ security and privacy?
First, users should understand that Psiphon is not an anonymity tool. We provide access to content, and we do it through a secure tunnel. This means people connected to the same network as you won’t be able to see what you’re doing, but you will not have perfect anonymity. We allow cookies to get through, and we allow all multimedia and scripting content to run on your device. The benefit of these permissions, of course, is that you get a full browsing experience and can interact with all of the websites you might want to visit.
We take security and privacy very seriously. We have an FAQ in both English and Arabic that explains exactly what you can expect from Psiphon. We never record people’s IP addresses or track their browsing habits, and we don’t even keep a record of sites that people visit. For most people, our security is sufficient for everything they may want to do. But if you’re looking for perfect secrecy and anonymity, then you may benefit from building a toolkit that contains lots of different pieces of software that can help you achieve that.
How do you see the future of Psiphon in the MENA region as a tool which guarantees access to Internet and information?
We’ve seen a lot of changes in the MENA region over the past 12 months, and it’s the fastest growing region for our software. In some countries, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of people using Psiphon. In many cases, this is because people are looking for ways to access the Internet that protects them from feeling they are being watched. Psiphon is a great tool for open Wi-Fi connections, giving that extra layer of security that prevents local network sniffing.
Some countries in the region have seen several spikes in usage. Iraq is one example, of course, and Turkey is another. We’re seeing these spikes happen more frequently in the region as a whole, as different information controls are being put in place at different times. We expect this pattern to continue, so we are making sure we have the capacity in place to support people when they need to access information using Psiphon.
Overall, we expect growth in the Middle East to continue as more people become aware of the benefits of using Psiphon, both for privacy and access reasons.