Triangle Boy: A New Angle On Free Speech

Triangle Boy could be the best thing to happen to Internet free speech since federal judges laughed the Communcations Decency Act out of a Pennsylvania courtroom in 1997. Its a tiny piece of software that allows web surfers to slip the nets of censors and go where they will. It could also, according to some critics, be a nasty CIA tool for stealth attacks on "hostile" sites. Or could it be both?

Protecting Net speech through anonymity isn't a new idea. For example, a user who goes to the main page of SafeWeb.com, the company building Triangle Boy, can visit any site on the Net without anyone knowing she's been there. SafeWeb hides her information and won't allow any site to deposit cookies or other user-identification debris on her computer. All someone monitoring her computer would see is a long stream of traffic from one site -- that is, SafeWeb.com.

That's handy for users wanting to surf on work machines without leaving a trail of hotjobs.com or hotbabes.com clicks for the boss to trace. As Lawrence Lessig (author of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and a supporter of the Triangle Boy project) points out, such surfing is "the sort our constitution protects through the technology of law."

But if it's your government or your Internet service provider that's monitoring you -- and according to Electronic Frontier Foundation experts, dozens do -- they can easily block your computer from finding SafeWeb's site. With few anonymous-surfing services available (Yahoo currently lists about two dozen), it's a trivial task to block them all.

Triangle Boy circumvents that problem by creating a network of Underground Railroad surfing waystations. Running the Triangle Boy software, you-the-volunteer play a brief but pivotal role as a bend in the path between users and SafeWeb. Let's say there's a surfer in a country with restricted Net access -- say, China. That surfer could seek out (through a search site like Yahoo or Google) people running Triangle Boy on their machines and find, in this example, you. The Triangle Boy software then redirects the surfer to SafeWeb, which notes your IP address and starts sending pages back to the surfer, disguising them as traffic from your machine. (Net heads will recognize this as "spoofing," a tech maneuver used by everyone from hackers to the guys in charge of making e-commerce sites go faster. It's perfectly legal as long as you volunteer to be spoofed.)

Since it's unlikely that you personally are interesting enough to attract the attention of censorship dragnets, traffic that looks like it's coming from you won't trip those filters.

While blocking twenty-odd sites is simple, tracking down and blocking 20,000 is nearly impossible -- especially since, as SafeWeb CEO Stephen Hsu notes, the Web is growing much, much faster than any tracking tool can catalog it. Still, he says, governments such as those in Saudi Arabia and China have been increasingly successful at controlling the flow of information. Just last month, in fact, over 1700 Net cafes in Chongqing were required to install the "Internet Café Security Management System," designed to block what Beijing calls "objectionable" content.

If most surfers squeeze online through a small number of sites or service providers (such as those Chongqing cafes) on their way into cyberspace, censors only need to control those few sites or service providers to make large chunks of the Web invisible. That's why some countries require citizens to use government-owned Internet services; it's a low-effort, low-profile, high-efficiency grip on the citizenry's access, with problematic sites blocked by the service provider before the surfer knows anything's wrong.

Triangle Boy's strength lies in numbers. The more volunteers, the harder it will be for censors to block them, even at government-owned Net service providers. Lessig thinks that would-be censors will respond to Triangle Boy "like a child responds to a non-cooperating puppy: anger, frustration, and then peaceful resignation." Think Napster: Lars and his printed lists of alleged Metallica pirates aside, it's hard to stop bits from shifting around online if they're coming from not just one but potentially thousands of directions. (Another, less controversial example is the SETI software that searches for extraterrestial life by using volunteer computers' "quiet time" to process radio signals from space.)

Triangle Boy provides as many jumping-off points for anonymous surfing as there are volunteers. In fact, since users don't take up time on volunteers' Net connections for more than an instant, one volunteer could be the jumping-off point for many users at once.

On the other hand, Triangle Boy volunteers could also become unwitting human shields used by CIA hackers. Last week the Wall Street Journal broke the news that the Central Intelligence Agency has signed a contract with SafeWeb for an "enhanced" version of Triangle Boy for the agency's own use. The enhancements involve the CIA's advanced encryption technologies, which will be melded with Triangle Boy to create a version of the software accessible only to CIA employees and contractors. (Rumors that the new package will be called "Triangle Spook" are probably false and, in fact, are starting right here.) SafeWeb expects to deliver this version of the software to the agency in April.

Critics' most extreme claim -- that the CIA only wants Triangle Boy so they can figure how to hack it and track it -- is fairly nonsensical, since the CIA could get the same information by simply downloading the software and examining it. More troubling is the thought that Triangle Spook could be used for offensive attacks. Theoretically, the software could be used to cloak the sources of a multi-pronged attack on a foreign banking or communications systems; after all, a Triangle Boy users doesn't look any more like CIA Director George Tenet than the Dalai Lama.

CIA officials deny any plan to use Triangle Boy or its heirs in an attack capacity, though electronic experts cite the CIA's and National Security Agency's years-long efforts to develop cyber-subversion tactics as sufficient evidence that the impetus is there.

Tens of thousands of free-speech-minded folk could be deploying Triangle Boy within six months, estimates Hsu, who'd "love it if every coder, every artist" -- every independent thinker who has either a Web page or always-on Net access -- "would load Triangle Boy and let it run." The child of Chinese-born parents, Hsu would like to see his project increase free speech in China and around the world through the minimal efforts of any volunteer who wants to pitch in.

And if the CIA wants to road-test it too? Bring it on.

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