A new app has been launched into the Apple and Android App Stores which can be used to detect, monitor, and report online surveillance and censorship around the world.
The app is part of the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), a five-year programme sponsored by the Tor Project, which is intended to inform netizens about online censorship and surveillance.
The new App is called ‘OONIProbe’ and was announced in a blog post on the OONI website. It builds on OONI’s desktop software which has long been available to download from their website, but as it requires manual downloading using a command line tool, something many internet users are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, it has not seen significant take-up.
The new App is likely to change that, though. Not only is it much simpler to download and use, but as it is an App, it is likely to be much easier for users in countries already affected by online censorship to get hold of it.
This is especially true in developing countries where mobile internet access is much more common than traditional desktop access.
Two types of test
The new App does not yet contain all the features of the desktop tool. The initial version allows users to run two different types of test; a connectivity test and a probe which looks for hardware which is changing or censoring online traffic on a network.
The connectivity test works by sending two requests, one from the mobile device running the software and one from an external server, to websites on a preselected list, which includes sites frequently subjected to censorship such as Facebook and Twitter. The choice of sites has been compiled by OONI and CitizenLab, a University of Toronto research group.
It then compares the responses of these sites to those received on a certified uncensored network. If there is a difference OONI will then test further ways to try and identify how the site is being blocked or censored.
The censorship probe works by sending an invalid request to an echo chamber (a computer which is under instruction to send back an identical copy of anything it receives).
If the response is identical, this means that the collection is most likely unobstructed. But if the response contains any sort of change or modification this indicates that at some point on the network a piece of hardware is acting on all the traffic it encounters.
The data gathered by the OONIProbe App will be used to advise users on how best to get around the online censorship they are encountering, whether by using a VPN, the Tor Browser, or Tor’s Android App, Orbot.
It will also be uploaded to the OONI Explorer website, a resource which aggregates the data from all OONI tests and compiles it into databases as well as an interactive map. This data has proved useful academics, researchers, and human rights campaigners. Ooni has already collaborated on reports with Amnesty International.
However, it should be noted that using OONIProbe is not without its risks. The apps itself will warn users that ““in some countries around the world, legal and/or extra-legal risks could emerge.” In some countries probing a network is illegal, or even considered to constitute terrorist activity.
Meanwhile, the app will routinely request data from sites containing pornography, hate speech, and terrorism-related content, all of which could lead to legal ramifications. OONI are however at pains to stress that no-one to date has got into to trouble for using their products.
And for many, the benefits that the App offer far outweigh any risks its use may pose. As Arturo Filastò, the project lead and core developer of OONIProbe said in a statement, “never before has it been so easy to uncover evidence of internet censorship… By simply owning a smartphone (and running ooniprobe), you can now play an active role in increasing transparency around internet controls.”