U.S. Tests E-Mail System That Bypasses Egypt-Style Internet Shutdown

The United States tested e-mail technology that bypasses foreign government censorship or even Internet shutdowns. But it's not yet clear how well it would have worked during the recent Internet shutdown in Egypt.

The United States government has a special e-mail system that will allow information to be transmitted even if a foreign government cuts off the country's news and Internet communications with the rest of the world, according to a report from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent U.S. agency responsible for all non-military international broadcasting. The BBG controls seven international broadcast networks, including Voice of America.

Since news and Internet service has been restored to Egypt as of Feb. 2, it's not likely the government will be using the technology within the country at this time. It's unclear how well this system would work in an Egypt-style shutdown, where Internet service was affected within the country as well.

According to the report, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act and posted on GovernmentAttic.org on Jan. 31, BBG conducted a test in China to bypass the country's censorship program between March and June 2010. The test transmitted news feeds from Voice of America, CKXX and China Weekly using the "Feed Over E-mail" (FOE) system, the report said.

The FOE system transmits news feeds, regular computer files and proxy Internet addresses to recipients via compressed and encrypted e-mail messages that can't be blocked by keyword filters, according to the report. Recipients need an e-mail account with a service provider based outside of the locked-down country, such as Google's Gmail service, to unpack the messages sent by the FOE system back to its original form, either as RSS feeds or downloading files, the report said.

"FOE can push new proxy addresses to users so they can browse the uncensored Internet via one of our web-based proxy servers," the report states. Users can also use FOE to download free proxy network software from Tor, Freegate or Ultrasurf.

The system complements existing proxy networks used to bypass censors, giving users access to blocked information, according to the report. The United States already relies on proxy servers to provide news to 21 countries, including Egypt, Iran and Cuba.

"FOE is not a proxy solution but it succeeded in what it intended to do," the team members wrote. "Once set up, it worked automatically without user intervention," said the report.

An "anti-censorship team" at BBG's technology services and innovation office performed tests over the FOE system in Washington, D.C.; Hong Kong; and two cities in China, Shenzen and Beijing, according to the report. The test used fairly mundane equipment, including a Lenovo T400 laptop running Microsoft's Windows 7 Ultimate, a Sony notebook with Windows XP Professional and a Dell desktop with Windows XP Professional, the report said. The transmissions were sent over China Telecom's residential broadband service at a WiFi spot in a shopping mall, Chinanet, and Hong Kong's City Telecom.

But "while FOE performed well in all tests, it is unclear how well the technology will work when it opens to the public," the members noted.

In response to the popular demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, the government reportedly ordered the five largest telecommunication carriers to turn off Internet connectivity on Jan. 27. The last remaining Internet service provider, Noor Group, went dark on Jan. 31.

"In an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet," James Cowie of Renesys said in a blog post.

As a result of the shutdown, users were unable to access sites outside of Egypt, such as Twitter and Facebook, but it's unclear how extensive the shutdown was for services within the country, Asaf Greiner, vice president of products at Commtouch, told eWEEK. Access to the proxy networks can use a protocol different from the one being blocked by the authorities, he said.

Egypt has dozens of Internet providers, but with major carriers offline, their ability to communicate was impacted. There were some telecommunications providers, such as the French Data Network, who provided dial-up services to customers with landlines. Google also implemented a speech-to-Twitter service.

In this kind of a situation, the FOE system, had it been deployed in Egypt, would have ensured information continued to flow in and out of Egypt over the past five days.

In public remarks Friday night after a conversation with the beleaguered Egyptian leader, President Obama said, "I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they've taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century."