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The Secret to Overcoming Chinese Censorship

Partido Comunista chino

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Once again, censorship (understood as a blatant threat from certain powers, with direct or indirect involvement of the state) is the order of the day. And yes, of course, unfortunately, regrettably and inadvertently, in the field of telematics (in other terms more intelligible to the vulgar, let’s say technological).

In this case, we are not talking about America’s Big Tech corporations, but about a new direct action of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): censoring the use of the instant messaging application Signal (with more than 42 million new users in February, following the new privacy policy of WhatsApp, among other issues).

This is really just one more item on the “blacklist.” Portals such as Gmail, Slack, Hootsuite, AO3, Facebook, Soundcloud and Vimeo, even Wikipedia and DuckDuckGo, among others, are part of the CCP blacklist. As can be seen, everything transcends a mere corporatist struggle with American companies.

In fact, there are large technology companies that have already started to adapt their services to the CCP tyranny’s requests (well, operational requirements). This is the case of Google, which a few years ago began to develop an app for Android that would facilitate the telephone identification of all those who made searches on its engine.

But we will not go into it in depth, as the intention of this article is simply to investigate, under a strategy of analysis, the reasons that may be behind the censorship of an instant messaging application with somewhat “peculiar” characteristics.

Greater privacy guaranteed, not only in terms of cryptographic aspects

Messages sent through Signal are not accessible to third parties because they are encrypted using the end-to-end model, so that their content can only be known by the receiver (in the process, it is encrypted, often using the Diffie-Hellman protocol to generate the keys).

In this case, there would be no intermediaries in the transmission, and it would be impossible for any third party to decrypt the data (these could include a government’s telematics and IT research agencies). Decryption would only be possible once everything has reached the “other end.”

But apart from that, it is impossible to take screenshots of conversations, messages can completely self-destruct and backups can only be made to the local file directory. And said also that, unlike Telegram, it is open source in its entirety (server-side as well).

Furthermore, the only personal data that is recorded with Signal is the user’s phone number. No contact information is of interest as well as no location, payment details, or certain information about the model of the mobile device being used.

The growing importance of “private networks”

As with other services censored by the Chinese Communist Party, the only way out of these blocks are the so-called “virtual private networks” (known as VPNs), although there is also the Deep Web.

These private networks, not necessarily used by companies, institutions and intelligence agencies, provide for encryption of the information exchanged between the different points of the network. They use protocols such as Ipsec (strong encryption algorithms and rigorous authentication), PPTP and L2TP (tunneling protocol).

They are widely used in countries where freedom of speech is seriously threatened by the prevailing totalitarianisms (in most Western countries it is rare to hear of anyone using a VPN to surf, within their routine, the network).

In China, the only way to use services such as Signal or Gmail is to connect to these networks, although it is also obvious that the CCP is targeting these networks because they can complicate its desire for mass citizen monitoring.

It may be that their use will become more popular as some people here may start to become aware and worry about the continuous invasions of privacy they receive (especially at a time when freedom of movement and economic activity is generally quite restricted, under the pretext of health).

Although it is not linearly related, it should not be allowed to go unnoticed that work is being done on totally private Internet networks, which break with the current paradigm in which we depend on service providers (ISPs) at specific points (not infrequently belonging to entities that participate in crony capitalism).

This is the case of the company Start9 Labs, which is working on a project to be considered as “self-sovereign computing” for computers, which would reinforce the privacy of Internet connections at home and would go beyond VPNs as we know them.

Under a $1.2 million agreement, work will be done on an operating system that, apart from having its own private Internet network, will allow bitcoin transactions and password management without intermediaries. Likewise, there will be a dispersed-decentralized management application store.

In turn, to connect to the Internet, the TOR Project, very popular in the so-called Deep Web, will be used. This has a multi-layer encryption (managed by multiple servers) and will hide aspects of identity that could not only come from the IP, but also from the information about the browser and device used.

It is worth remembering that the distributed and decentralized paradigm of the Internet works in our favor to a large extent. In fact, when many modern states think of the Chinese model, there is no less reason to think of blockchain or alternatives to traditional connectivity.

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