Researchers have developed an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based system that automatically learns to evade censorship in India, China, and Kazakhstan. The tool, called Geneva (short for Genetic Evasion), found dozens of ways to circumvent censorship by exploiting gaps in censors' logic and finding bugs that the researchers said would have been virtually impossible for humans to find manually.
The researchers are scheduled to introduce Geneva during a peer-reviewed talk at the Association for Computing Machinery's 26th Conference on Computer and Communications Security in London on Thursday.
"With Geneva, we are, for the first time, at a major advantage in the censorship arms race," said Dave Levin, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland in the US and senior author of the paper.
"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.
To demonstrate that Geneva worked in the real world against undiscovered censorship strategies, the team ran Geneva on a computer in China with an unmodified Google Chrome browser installed.
By deploying strategies identified by Geneva, the user was able to browse free of keyword censorship.
The researchers also successfully evaded censorship in India, which blocks forbidden URLs, and Kazakhstan, which was eavesdropping on certain social media sites at the time, said a statement from the University of Maryland.
All information on the Internet is broken into data packets by the sender's computer and reassembled by the receiving computer.
One prevalent form of Internet censorship works by monitoring the data packets sent during an Internet search.
The censor blocks requests that either contain flagged keywords (such as "Tiananmen Square" in China) or prohibited domain names (such as "Wikipedia" in many countries).
When Geneva is running on a computer that is sending out web requests through a censor, it modifies how data is broken up and sent, so that the censor does not recognise forbidden content or is unable to censor the connection.
Known as a genetic algorithm, Geneva is a biologically inspired type of AI that Levin and his team developed to work 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.
Individually, the bits of code do very little, but when composed into instructions, they can perform sophisticated evasion strategies for breaking up, arranging or sending data packets.
The tool 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.
Geneva mutates and cross breeds its strategies by randomly removing instructions, adding new instructions, or combining successful instructions and testing the strategy again.
Through this evolutionary process, Geneva is able to identify multiple evasion strategies very quickly, said the study.