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Privacy tool for Iranians withdrawn amid security concerns

'Haystack' could out dissident needles

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A heavily hyped software tool created to help Iranian citizens evade government surveillance online was abruptly pulled from the web following findings it was riddled with vulnerabilities that could expose users' identities.

Members of the Censorship Research Center said they were withdrawing the Haystack tool and asked that all remaining copies be destroyed. The move came after hacker Jacob Appelbaum called Haystack “the worst piece of software I have ever had the displeasure of ripping apart” and warned it could jeopardize the lives of Iranians who used it.

The project's lead developer said here he was resigning. Those remaining vowed to have the program reviewed by outside auditors and then released as an open-source package.

It remains unclear how many people ever used Haystack and whether anyone actually depended on it to cloak their online activities from the prying eyes of Iran's government. What is free from any doubt is the tremendous amount of uninformed adulation the program creators received from mostly mainstream news outlets.

The Guardian, for instance, named Censorship Research Center Executive Director Austin Heap the the 2010 Innovator of the Year and called Haystack “a key technology used by Iranians to disseminate information outside the country in the protests that followed the disputed election result in June 2009.” Newsweek, the BBC, Forbes, Salon.com, and The Atlantic have also lauded the project, even though Heap now says it never made it out of development and wasn't widely used.

Haystack's promoters claimed it was an improvement over Tor and other anonymity services because it hides dissidents' communications in internet traffic that's officially sanctioned by the Iranian government. That allowed citizens to use it without calling attention to themselves and made it impossible for the government to suppress their traffic without blocking all internet communications, they said.

More from The Freedom to Tinker blog, Wired.com and the BBC is here, here and here. ®

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