Signal strikes back against Egyptian censors

Signal has become something of a flagbearer for encrypted communications tools. And inevitably this means that it has become a target for those regimes around the world who seek to control the online activities of their citizens.

Egypt censorship

The latest country to seek to block Signal is Egypt. On Monday, Open Whisper Systems, the operator of Signal confirmed on Twitter that the service was blocked in the country.

This is certainly not the first time that the Egyptian government has sought to censor internet access. Back in 2011, the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak cut the internet entirely; an action which played a part in provoking the protests which eventually saw him overthrown.

Today, with a military regime in control in Egypt, Signal is widely used in Egypt by journalists and others with a need to communicate securely and privately.

But as of Monday, Egyptian ISPs have been blocking access. They are only likely to have taken this course of action on instruction from the Government. There has been no formal statement by the regime on the blocking so far, but commentators have speculated that it is in relation to the suicide bombing at an Egyptian church earlier this month.

Censorship Circumvention

Open Whisper Systems stated that they would be “deploying censorship circumvention” in the coming weeks, and advised users in Egypt (and the United Arab Emirates, where the service has also been under attack) to connect to their service via a VPN to regain access.

In actual fact, Signal’s service has been restored in Egypt already using a censorship circumvention technique known as ‘domain fronting’.

Domain Fronting’ is an ingenious technique which involves the use of a Google domain to hide Signal traffic and therefore avoid the blocking attempt. With the domain fronting in place, the only way that the Egyptian Authorities are able to block Signal now is by cutting off the entire internet again.

As Open Whisper Systems explained “when those users send a Signal message, it will look like a normal HTTP request to www.google.com. To block signal messages, these countries would also have to block all of google.com.”

Should the Egyptian regime rise to this challenge and block Google, there are countless other large-scale domain fronts that can be used to mask Signal in the same way.

Fast and effective

The response to the blocking of Signal in Egypt has been very impressive. Open Whisper Systems have restored the service in less than a week. And in the meantime, they recommended a VPN as the way for users to retain access to the service continuously.

VPN usage in Egypt is already on the rise as a result of efforts by the current regime, and its predecessors, to establish control over the internet. The blocking of Signal is likely to see the number of Egyptian VPN subscribers grow considerably, even with the service going back online so quickly.

The blocking of Signal hints at the start of something in Egypt and the fear is that they may look to go down the road Turkey has followed, where most communications tools and social media sites have been blocked at one time of another.

For now, Signal is restored, but for Egyptian users who want to be able to guarantee their access to the entire web, rather than just the bits their Government approves of, it would be highly advisable to sign up for a reputable VPN, like IPVanish or ExpressVPN, sooner rather than later.

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