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[liberationtech] Haystack Q&A

Katrin Verclas katrin at
Thu Sep 9 12:23:40 PDT 2010

Thanks, Danny.  Very informative. Appreciate the time you took. If  
Nart is on the list, if you want to weigh in as well, that would be  
helpful.  We are working on two projects in the region, so this is  
extremely useful.



On Sep 8, 2010, at 11:56 PM, Danny O'Brien wrote:

> On Thu, Sep 2, 2010 at 5:49 PM, Danny O'Brien <danny at> wrote:
>> Here are my questions for the Haystack team:
> So, an update to this. I'm based in San Francisco, so last week I
> arranged (along with Moxie of to see a demo of
> Haystack. I took the opportunity to ask Austin some additional
> questions about the Censorship Research Center's work and Haystack's
> history. We met up in a local cafe, and Austin demo'd the software on
> his laptop.
> Really, seeing the demo was the least informative part: neither I nor
> Moxie exposed it to any in-depth tests on the spot, nor did we expect
> to.  The model for how Haystack is supposed to work -- a set of
> external proxies that relay encrypted traffic disguised
> steganographically as common unencrypted traffic patterns in order to
> bypass a national filtering and surveillance system -- is already
> pretty well known. The challenges with doing that are either obvious
> (how do you hide the proxies from attackers?) or buried deep in the
> details (how can you prevent your steganography actually serving as an
> obvious fingerprint  instead?  etc). There really wasn't much we could
> learn or answer from just peering at code, IP address reporting, and
> diagnostic data dumps.
> We did ask Austin some fairly technical questions about what we were
> looking at, some of which he could answer, some of which he referred
> us to Daniel Colascione, the main co-developer. The software I saw
> appeared to be under active development: the UI was pretty
> straightforward and clean, but the underlying client still had some
> test harness features built-in. I was told it was not ready for wide
> use -- the current user base are all effectively testers.
> I did get some answers to the questions I gave here, and also some of
> the wider context.
>> 1) Could you give us precise numbers as to the user base of Haystack?
> Austin reports that Haystack has less than a hundred current users.
> It's not a rolled-out service, though it's been in regular use by
> those users since late March.
> Austin and his colleagues were informed last year by their advisors
> that by offering a service to Iranian citizens in Iran they were
> violating US sanctions, and therefore they shut down the proxy service
> until they got the paperwork in order. Development on the client and
> server code continued, but they could not test it with their Iranian
> contacts until March.
> The same issue also affected their fundraising: their PayPal account
> was frozen. Austin said that despite appearances, their donation
> drives did not bring in much cash anyway. They made some expensive
> bandwidth and server decisions early on which sucked away a lot of
> what they did have.
> Austin explained that the Haystack development team was around seven
> programmers, all working as volunteers in their spare time.
>> 2) Would you make available a way that Haystack users can determine
>> that they are, in fact, using the real Haystack, and not malware
>> presented by others?
> They don't have a way to do this currently; but Austin acknowledged it
> as a problem, and demonstrated some early work (we didn't go into
> technical details) to try and combat it that they'd been working on
> since I mentioned it as a problem.
>> 3) Would it be possible to provide a copy of Haystack for public
>> download and evaluation? It seem like it would be possible to  
>> restrict
>> the usage of a "demo" version to not take too much of Haystack's
>> resources.
> No movement on this. I was reassured that he'd recently proactively
> reached out to some external technical experts to review or advise the
> project. He'd already spoken with Bram Cohen earlier and I believe
> he's also chatted with Nart Villeneuve (Nart can confirm this). I
> recommended some names of people that have broad respect for analysing
> secure protocols and auditing code (including Moxie), and repeated my
> belief that an audit of the code under NDA from a small commercial
> security company is probably best suited for Haystack's proprietary
> model. I also emphasised that there was alreayd a community of people
> with long expertise in building circumvention systems, and a growing
> pool of communal knowledge that he could draw on.
>> 3) Would you be amenable to submitting Haystack for independent  
>> review
>> by security experts? If not, why not? If this has already happened,
>> can you name who conducted such an audit?
> No-one yet has. he seems much more amenable to this than he was when I
> spoke to him last year, and as I say we discussed some possible
> options.
> Austin appears to be spending a lot of time recently individually
> demonstrating the software and answering these kinds of questions in
> person; I suggested that it might be more efficient to have a more
> public, dynamic, Q&A on this forum or elsewhere.
> (These are all just my impressions drawn from my notes; Austin please
> step in and correct anything, or add any additional details you think
> are appropriate).
> -- 
> Danny O'Brien
> danny at
> dobrien at
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Katrin Verclas
katrin at

skype/twitter: katrinskaya
(347) 281-7191

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