Read the original story here in The Oregonian.
The e-mail had scam written all over it: It came out of the blue, from a name Tom Shrimpton didn’t know, promising the Portland State University professor money from an anonymous donor.
Follow-up correspondence, though, made it clear this was no hoax: Google Chairman Eric Schmidt had picked PSU out of the blue for a $96,400 grant to fund Shrimpton’s research into overcoming online censorship.
The technique Shrimpton and three colleagues devised could help people living in China, or other countries that obstruct access to the Internet, to slip through those online blockades. Their solution came in the form of an intellectual puzzle: “Can we make encryption that looks like normal web traffic?”
Online encryption is routine – web surfers use it, even without noticing, when they check their bank accounts online, send an e-mail through an encrypted service such as Gmail, or buy something from Amazon.
“People use encryption all the time,” said Shrimpton, a computer science professor and cryptologist. “Most of the time they’re unaware of it.”
But encrypted web activity can also shield online messages from government censors. Earlier this week, Google disclosed that it routinely encrypted web searches in China to overcome censorship there.
Countries that seek to restrict what their citizens do online closely watch encrypted traffic, Shrimpton said, and in some cases have shut it off altogether where it crosses international borders.
“They don’t want you to be able to hide what sites you’re visiting on the web, or what search terms you’re searching for,” he said.
Prompted by news reports about censors in countries such as China, Pakistan and Iran, Shrimpton and his colleagues created a tool they call “Format-Transforming Encryption.”
It solves the puzzle they created for themselves, enabling users to disguise their encrypted web traffic as something innocuous, such as routine network communication among computers.
“It’s extremely flexible,” Shrimpton said, so if a country’s censors are restricting one type of communication the user can choose another that’s sneaking through.
It’s not foolproof – on a small scale, Shrimpton said, online analysis might be able to figure out which streams of traffic use FTE to hide what’s really going on. But Shrimpton said he believes it would be too great a task to handle on a large scale.
Late last month, he said, an online anonymity service called the Tor Project worked with PSU graduate student Kevin Dyer to incorporate Shrimpton’s FTE tools, helping traffic reach their servers and connect to the outside world.
Additionally, Shrimpton said he has held informal talks with Google Ideas, a company-funded think tank, about how to use his innovation. That may be how Schmidt learned about his research – but Shrimpton said he doesn’t know for sure.
The funding comes from a program called New Digital Age Grants funded by a $1 million donation from Schmidt in conjunction with a book he co-wrote about meeting global challenges with technology, “The New Digital Age.” Nine other organizations won grants this week, too.
His grant will help Shrimpton work with far-flung colleagues, present his ideas at technology conferences and pay himself a salary to further his work over the summer.
“This will be hugely helpful,” he said.