‘Google Ideas explores how technology can enable people to confront threats in the face of conflict, instability or repression. We connect users, experts and engineers to conduct research and seed new technology-driven initiatives‘.
Well, this week it backed a collaboration between the University of Washington and Brave New Software called uProxy. This is a browser extension (currently available for Firefox and Chrome) designed to enable users to evade ‘censorship, surveillance and misdirection’ when ‘corrupt or repressive groups control the Internet’s infrastructure’.
The idea is that if you have a trusted friend in another country who is also running the browser extension, then you can connect to the internet over an encrypted link using their ‘safer, more secure and private connection’. By capitalising on social networks, uProxy should make it difficult to find and block everyone’s peers, and the more people who use it, the harder it will be to censor. The process apparently also works in the background using hard-to-block processes, and so cannot be restricted simply by blocking social networks.
In addition to providing access to censored content, uProxy will also let you access geo-restricted content (such as the US version of NetFlix, or the BBC iPlayer).
One concern of ours, that Google (who do not have a good reputation for maintaining its users’ privacy) is behind the project, has been somewhat allayed by the fact that the source code will be released for public inspection, making it less likely that the NSA have built a back-door or similar into the program.
However, while we commend any tool that increases internet users’ privacy, uProxy leaves us with some concerns. The first is the ‘trusted friend’ part – sure, if you have friends abroad who are tech savvy enough and don’t mind you using their connection, then everything sounds great. If not however, then you will probably have to trust a ‘friend’ you that don’t really know, and if that ‘friend’ is tech savvy then they can probably monitor what you get up to on the internet. Even without the possibility of deliberately set up ‘honey-traps’, this is a worrying idea.
The flip-side to this of course is that if you are allowing someone to use your internet connection, then you want to be very sure they are not doing anything that will get you into trouble!
A lesser issue is that you can only connect to the internet via uProxy when you have friend who is currently online, which may limit its usability.
Still, new privacy technologies excite us, so we shall watch developments with a keen eye. At present uProxy is at the closed trial stage, but you can find out more by going to the official webpage (where you can also sign up for the extended rollout).
Brave New Software is also the team behind Lantern, another anonymity tool we shall look at in the near future.