Blown To Bits

An Olympic Showdown Over Internet Censorship?

Thursday, July 31st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Chinese government has double-crossed the International Olympic Committee. Having agreed that journalists would be given the same electronic freedoms they enjoyed at previous Olympic games, the Chinese now say they just meant they’d be given free access to that part of the Web relevant to the games themselves. And the IOC, which presumably had a chance to stand for something about press freedoms, caved. An IOC spokesman says that the IOC and the Chinese agreed that “some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games related.”

If there is a showdown on this, it will have to come from the press. I am guessing that doesn’t happen. The media have enough problems; no one wants their reporters thrown in Chinese jails.

In the meantime, the Chinese have also announced that they would increase the level of monitoring of communications out of hotel rooms. A memo to the hotels says, “In order to ensure the smooth opening of Olympic in Beijing and the Expo in Shanghai in 2010, safeguard the security of Internet network and the information thereon in the hotels . . . it is required that your company install and run the Security Management System.” Ah yes, security. In addition to those two stories (from Reuters and the LA Times, which was the first to break it), there is a story today in the NYT.

So much for the cute panda bear logos and the long-heralded opening of the new China to the West.

A couple of hints for those actually going to China. Blackberries work, and because the communication is encrypted from your handheld to the Blackberry server, you should be able to get anything you want that way. Run Google from your Blackberry and you are really using Google US, but the bits that arrive at your device are undecipherable along the path to you and are only descrambled by your handheld.

If you have a corporate server to which you can establish a VPN connection, you should be able to get unfiltered information (and send and receive unfiltered email) that way.

And finally, there is a neat tool for transporting encrypted information on your laptop. By way of background, encrypted information is indecipherable (if the encryption algorithm is industry-strength). But the very fact that you are moving or carrying what seems to be piles of random bits may tip off an eavesdropper to the fact that you are conveying or receiving secrets. That’s the advantage of steganography (discussed in Chapter 3 of Blown to Bits) — steganographically encoded data doesn’t seem to be a message at all.

Truecrypt is free software for storing information on the hard disk of your laptop that is encrypted and also steganographically hidden. It doesn’t seem to be there at all; a look at the laptop’s file system, were you compelled to show your laptop at the border, would not reveal that your hidden files even existed.

UPDATE, August 2; According to the Guardian (UK), the ban has been lifted, and the entire Internet is viewable from Beijing. Doesn’t mean they aren’t keeping track of who goes where, of course ‚Ķ

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