New AI System Evolves to Evade Internet Censorship
Wed, April 14, 2021

New AI System Evolves to Evade Internet Censorship

The continuous evolution of the internet has sparked a new age of global opportunity. People are given the chance to communicate and connect regardless of physical location / Photo by: Richard Patterson via Flickr

 

The continuous evolution of the internet has sparked a new age of global opportunity. People are given the chance to communicate and connect regardless of physical location. Millions of people are no longer limited by what knowledge is available in their local library because we can now access information freely with literally the touch of a finger. BroadbandSearch.net, a website dedicated to research, review, and comparison, reported that there are more than 4.2 billion people across the world who have access to and use the internet.

It was also mentioned that the usage of the internet has increased by 1,066 percent between 2000 and 2018. Asia accounted for the majority of internet users in the world as of June 2018. From only 269 billion emails sent and received worldwide in 2017, it increased by more than 281.1 billion in 2018. By 2022, it is expected to increase by 333.2 billion.

However, not all governments are enthusiastic about the democratization that the internet brings. Several regimes across the world seek to control online freedom and suppress what their citizens can do on the web. Countries like China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and the like suffer from internet censorship, the control or suppression of what can be accessed, published, or viewed online.

According to Webdesigner Depot, an online site that aims to deliver the best insights on design, user experience, and freelancing, a billion internet users in China are barely aware that Facebook and Google exist. This is because authorities ensure that any unpleasant content will not be seen on their search engines and social media boards through the use of “the Great Firewall of China,” the country’s system of highly effective controls on the internet. For instance, the disturbing footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 is permanently blocked there. 

Countries like China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and the like suffer from internet censorship, the control or suppression of what can be accessed, published, or viewed online / Photo by: Dong Fang via Wikimedia Commons

 

Political Motivations for Internet Censorship

There’s a range of ways that governments can limit online freedom that most other countries enjoy every day, from blocking independent media to censoring or monitoring how citizens use the internet. The OpenNet Initiative (ONI), an organization dedicated to informing the public about online filtering and surveillance policies across the world, mentioned that common web contents censored include those that are political (contents that run contrary to the country’s policies related to religious movements, human rights, and other social issues), social (web pages that focus on drugs, gambling, sexuality, and other subjects that a government might deem offensive), conflict/security (pages that relate to wars, skirmishes, dissent, and other conflicts), and internet tools (online sites like instant messaging, email, language translation applications and ways to circumvent censorship). 

Most of the time, governments disguise internet censorship as a well-intentioned measure. But the truth is, the motive behind it is mostly political. They aim to undermine opposition leaders, monitor online communications, and quell any sign of activism. Today, more and more authoritarian states are deliberately controlling and managing citizens’ access to information and suppress discussion and debate.

There’s a range of ways that governments can limit online freedom that most other countries enjoy every day, from blocking independent media to censoring or monitoring how citizens use the internet / Photo by: Tarale via Wikimedia Commons

 

Researchers Develop AI Tool to Bypass Internet Censorship

One of the most prevalent forms of internet censorship used by authoritarian regimes is by monitoring the data packets sent during an internet search. This tool blocks requests that either contain prohibited domain names (such as "Wikipedia" in many countries) or flagged keywords (such as "Tiananmen Square" in China). But, a recent tool developed by researchers of the University of Maryland can bypass this. 

The researchers developed Geneva (short for Genetic Evasion), a type of artificial intelligence that performs sophisticated evasion strategies for breaking up, arranging, or sending data packets. This new AI system can automatically learn how to circumvent censorship, shifting the balance of the censorship race. This aims to address the increasingly sophisticated internet censorship that researchers must manually search for ways to circumvent before—a process that takes considerable time.

Science Daily, an American website that aggregates press releases and publishes lightly edited press releases about science, reported that the researchers tested Geneva in the laboratory against mock censors and the real world against real censors. They created censors that work just like what the autocratic regimes are using. The AI system identified virtually all the packet-manipulation strategies in only a few days.

Also, the team ran Geneva on a computer in China with an unmodified Google Chrome browser installed to demonstrate how the AI system can work in the real world against undiscovered censorship strategies. They were able to browse free of keyword censorship by deploying strategies identified by Geneva. At the same time, the researchers successfully evaded censorship in India, which blocks forbidden URLs. The run was also successful in Kazakhstan, which was eavesdropping on certain social media sites at the time.

All in all, Geneva has successfully circumvented censorships in various countries. Dave Levin, an assistant professor of computer science at UMD and senior author of the paper, stated that this is the first time that we are at a major advantage in the censorship arms race through the help of Geneva. 

"Geneva represents the first step toward a whole new arms race in which artificial intelligence systems of censors and evaders compete with one another. Ultimately, winning this race means bringing free speech and open communication to millions of users around the world who currently don't have them,” he added. 

Internet censorship not only blocks useful information in a country but also suppresses the citizens’ rights to online freedom. AI helps in taking a huge step forward in blocking a politically motivated restriction that authoritarian regimes have been employing for the past several years.