how to:How To Use Collage to Outsmart Internet Censors
Ten countries censor the Internet heavily enough for Reporters Without Borders to classify them as “Internet Enemies.” Another sixteen—including Australia, Turkey, France—monitor the net enough to be labeled “Under Surveillance.” What began as a means of facilitating rapid communication has become, in some nations, a way to control public’s access to information. Getting around the censors is always difficult; sometimes, it’s dangerous.
Recognizing the need for a new, safer means of communication, students at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a system known as Collage. In the developer’s words, their system, “allows users to exchange messages through hidden channels in sites that host user-generated content.” Basically: a message that would have normally been censored is hidden inside an innocuous Tweet or Flickr upload, which is not censored.
As with many secrecy tools developed for the Internet, there is no way to stop criminals or terrorists from using Collage for nefarious purposes. There is also the possibility, the researchers admit, that “the governments of various countries where the software might be used could discover the hidden messages.” And, as blogger Sami Ben Gharbia adds: “[I]f the social media websites that this tool will be relying on are not blocked yet, somewhere, this will give some “legitimate” excuses for censors to block them.”
This new system comes from the GIT’s GTNoise division. Their site states that their work “ranges from fighting the Internet's cybercriminals (spam, phishing, etc.) to improving Internet availability to making networks easier to diagnose and operate.” Impressively, GTNoise is comprised of only twelve Ph.D. and postdoc students. This month, the students will release Collage, and cyberactivists will be mere steps away from easier, safer communication.
Collage is designed to do all of the work for you. Using Collage requires no special skills or technology. Once it is released, merely download Collage from GTNoise’s project site (a demo is currently available).
If you wish to hide a message in a piece of content, run Collage. Choose a piece of “cover traffic”—a photo, a tweet, ect. Then, enter the text you wish to hide, and Collage will embed it in the chosen cover traffic.
To download a piece of content, you must first digitally “rendezvous” with the person who uploaded it. To rendezvous, as GTNoise’s research paper explains, “senders and receivers perform sequences of tasks, which are time-dependent sequences of actions.” Basically, you must have already arranged with the sender of the information which site will host the cover traffic, and which specific pieces of content on the site will carry the message.
For example: At 10:00PM EST, search Flickr for “black coffee” and download the first fifteen results. If all goes according to plan, the sender will have uploaded at least fifteen photos of black coffee right before 10PM so that his/her encoded messages are the top results. The key to such a rendezvous is nonchalance: sender/receiver action online must look perfectly normal. Who doesn’t search the web for photos of coffee late at night?
Once you’ve rendezvoused and downloaded the content, Collage automatically detects and opens messages hidden in the content. It may take a few minutes to process, but it really is that simple.
You can even donate your own Flickr photo album to Collage, giving users in oppressive countries a good, diverse stockpile of safe, free photos in which to hide their messages.