Well-informed people know about how the internet has been censored in countries like China, India and Kazakhstan. But citizens may soon have an AI-based system that automatically learns to evade censorship in these countries. The system, or rather tool, is called Geneva (short for Genetic Evasion) can find ways to circumvent censorship by exploiting gaps in censors' logic and finding bugs that are said to be virtually impossible for humans to find manually.
The researchers introduced the tool at the Association for Computing Machinery's 26th Conference on Computer and Communications Security that is currently underway in London. Dave Levin, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland in the US and senior author of the paper, said that with Geneva, they are at a major advantage in the censorship arms race for the first time.
‘Geneva represents the first step toward a whole new arms race in which artificial intelligence systems of censors and evaders compete with one another. Ultimately, winning this race means bringing free speech and open communication to millions of users around the world who currently don't have them,’ Levin said.
The team of researchers that developed the tool ran it on a computer in China with an unmodified Google Chrome browser. The tool then helped the user to browse free of keyword censorship by deploying various strategies. The same was done in India, where they could access the blocked URLs, and Kazakhstan, which was eavesdropping on certain social media sites, the University of Maryland claimed.
The information on the internet is broken into data packets before sending and then it is reassembled by the receiving computer. Geneva modifies how data is broken up and sent, so that the censor does not recognise forbidden content. Known as a genetic algorithm, Geneva is a biologically inspired type of artificial intelligence that works in the background as a user browses the web from a standard internet browser.
‘Like biological systems, Geneva forms sets of instructions from genetic building blocks. But rather than using DNA as building blocks, Geneva uses small pieces of code. Geneva evolves its genetic code through successive attempts (or generations). With each generation, Geneva keeps the instructions that work best at evading censorship and kicks out the rest,’ the researchers said.
‘Ordinarily we identify how a censorship strategy works and then devise strategies to evade it. But now we let Geneva figure out how to evade the censor, and then we learn what censorship strategies are being used by seeing how Geneva defeated them. If Geneva can be deployed on the server side and work as well as it does on the client side, then it could potentially open up communications for millions of people,’ Levin said.