China's anti-censor software pimps user data

Dissident data for sale

Roberts is unconvinced by the explanation from the circumvention tools suppliers. Even if the apparent sale of clickstream data were a simple misunderstanding, then the issue of user-identifiable data retention still stands.

"I don't understand how a website could be considered confidential," Roberts told El Reg. "I think it more likely that the confusion falls somewhere between the partners sharing the data."

"But in any case, the important finding that they are storing the data at all remains."

Roberts has published a more detailed response to the reactions of the circumvention tools firms here.

I’m happy that the data is no longer for sale on the website, but given all of these factors, I’m still concerned with the amount and sensitivity of the data being stored, the lack of disclosure to users about what data is being stored and how it is being used, and the care with which the data is being protected.

Roberts adds that he is not questioning the motives of those developing the tools, seeking to accuse them of making a quick buck, but rather criticising their lack of openness and privacy policies.

Who else is eavesdropping?

Roberts notes that any security shortcomings in circumvention tools leaves Chinese users with few alternatives. Technologies such as Psiphon and Tor offer anonymous surfing but have themselves been subject to problems, he writes.

"Lots of folks rely on personal VPNs to circumvent or otherwise secure their connections, but those VPNs are not inherently any safer that the local ISPs through which they are tunneling," Roberts adds, noting recent laws from the Swedish government giving it the ability to eavesdrop on VPN connections maintained by local ISP Relakks.

Similar issues involving the use of communication technology in China have cropped up before. Last October, Skype admitted that text messages sent through a Chinese version of the service were open to surveillance, blaming local partner TOM Online for allowing the eavesdropping.

The issue emerged after researchers from Citizen Lab, which is based at the University of Toronto, established that TOM-Skype was "censoring and logging" text chat messages containing certain keywords. The researchers were able to prove the breach because the surreptitiously logged data was kept on an open server.

We asked Ronald Deibert, director of the Lab, to comment on Roberts' analysis. He said that he was closely monitoring the debate about Global Internet Freedom Consortium tools stirred up by Roberts' recent post. He added that trusting a commercial virtual ISP or circumvention tools provider was an inherently risky proposition.

"The original notion of Psiphon (our circumvention tool) was to depend on personal social networks of trust as node operators, rather than other providers, precisely to avoid this problem," Deibert told us.

"We took some flack on this at the outset, and it was widely misunderstood, but it seems apropos now to reiterate it." ®

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