Needles in a Haystack

By Dobson, William J. | Newsweek, August 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

Needles in a Haystack


Dobson, William J., Newsweek


Byline: William J. Dobson; Dobson is writing a book on the challenges to democracy, to be published by Doubleday.

A 20-something named Austin Heap has found the perfect disguise for dissidents in their cyberwar against the world's dictators.

For Austin Heap, there was nothing particularly remarkable about June 14, 2009. The 25-year-old computer programmer was home in his San Francisco apartment, spending his evening the same way he spent much of his free time: playing videogames. "I was sitting at my computer, as I usually do, playing Warcraft," recalls Heap. "My boyfriend asked if I was following what was going on in Iran, and I said no. I was busy killing dragons."

Later that night, Heap logged on to his Twitter account. He read about the growing number of Iranians claiming that their votes had been stolen in the presidential election, and he saw people complaining that the government was censoring their cries of fraud and election rigging. For Heap--who says, "I am for human rights, the Internet, and I check out from there"--something clicked. At that moment, he decided to become involved in a battle more than 7,000 miles away in a country he admits he knew next to nothing about. "I remember literally saying, 'OK, game on.' "

Since the Internet came into its own, there has been no shortage of breathless expectation about what technology would do for the world's least-free places. Put simply, democratizing technologies were supposed to lead to democracy. They didn't. Only later did people realize that the technology was just a tool; what mattered was how it was used. And authoritarian regimes initially proved to be more sophisticated than their opponents at wielding these new weapons.

Now a new generation of hacktivists like Heap is fighting back. They are not seeking silver-bullet solutions but scalable technologies that will unlock the one advantage the people always had--the sheer power of their numbers. "The technology variable doesn't matter the most," says Patrick Meier, director of crisis mapping for Ushahidi, a group of digital activists doing cutting-edge work in open-source interactive mapping. "It is the organizational structure that will matter the most. Rigid structures are unable to adapt as quickly to a rapidly changing environment as a decentralized system. Ultimately, it is a battle of organizational theory."

That's one of the first lessons Heap learned when he took on the Iranians. In many authoritarian countries with a closely monitored Internet, citizens evade the state by using proxy servers that mask their identity as they surf the Web. So, at first, Heap thought it would be helpful to create safe proxies that people in Iran could use. He posted advice on his blog about how people could run proxies from home. He soon had nearly 10,000 people following his instructions. But his efforts were almost pointless; Heap was taking on the Islamic Republic in a game of one on one, and he was no match. The regime's censors apparently read his blog, too, and simply trailed behind him, closing proxies as he pronounced them ready to use. "We could watch Iran respond," says Heap. "We would do something, and they would block it."

But then he had a stroke of luck. Someone with the online handle Quotemstr asked Heap to join a specific chatroom. Quotemstr wasn't interested in making idle conversation. He was a disaffected Iranian official with information to share. He provided Heap with a copy of the internal operating procedures for Iran's filtering software. The 96-page document was in Farsi, but the diagrams told Heap what he needed to know. (A computer savant, Heap learned his first programming language in fourth grade; he was programming in 18 languages by his senior year in high school.) "Four days ago I was killing dragons with my firepower," he recalls, "and now I was getting leaks from inside the Iranian government."

Less than a month and many all-nighters later, Heap and a friend had created Haystack. …

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