LSD Magazine interviews Austin Heap

Could you give us some background on yourself, how you honed your skills, and some insight into how you ended up designing software to circumvent Iranian internet filters

Well myself and Daniel, the other primary guy that I work with in the non profit organisation, are both self taught computer junkies. I often joked with my parents that it was the internet rather than them which raised me and there was a point in the 6th grade when they actually tried to take me to internet addiction therapy! The internet for me has always been this endless source of information, an incredible way to learn, and such an empowering tool and even when I was in 4th grade learning my first programming language, I saw just how amazing it was that we could all participate. There I am sitting at home on my little 25mhz computer and my dial up and there are these giant universities with their 100mhz machines but we can all participate in this global community. The ground work at that point in time was just being laid and I was spending phenomenal amounts of time on line learning a vast range of different programming languages and  the internet just became a central point in my life. I don’t want to speak for Dan but I know that he has a similar history. We learned everything from the open source community and from people who didn’t necessarily want any money but a chance to contribute their knowledge to what could be a greater good and help develop the potential of the internet. Throughout that time I had always been a heartfelt opponent of censorship and a vigorous supporter of open information, consumer rights and human rights, even down to Apple telling you how you can and can’t use the iphone.

I got in trouble a few years back for posting some internal emails from a company here in the states called Diebold. They are the manufacturer of our voting machines and in one of the emails to Jeb Bush before the 04 election, the head of the company promises to “deliver the election” to George Bush in Ohio. There were 5 of us, all students that were involved in the leak and people all over the world helped post and disseminate these documents. Diebold slowly started going after various people and going after their schools and you know it really doesn’t matter who or where it comes from, I just don’t like when people try to control information especially when they have no business doing it. Bottom line, when you make our voting machines, you sign up for openness, proprietary technology or not. I’m sorry but when you control our democracy via your technology, if you don’t want to be open we’re going to help you be open.

On that basis what do you make of sites like Wikileaks?

We’ve been talking to some of the guys at Wikileaks and I really hope that we can collaborate in the future. I think that Wikileaks is one of the most breathtaking projects on the internet and in their short history, they have broken more giant stories than the Wall Street Journal has in the past 100 years. Standing up for this cause, dealing with the law suits, dealing with the political impacts, setting up servers all over the world just so they can give a whistleblower the chance to tell their story is I think such an remarkably noble cause and I’m a huge huge fan of theirs.

How did you come to be a part of the Censorship Research Centre?

Pretty much right after the election happened this past summer I was on Twitter (on the internet as always!) and it occurred to me that Iran behaving in a way that falls into the category of stuff that I don’t like. Trying to mess with the internet is not something I take kindly to and that combined with Iran having such a young, well connected and tech savvy population really brought the whole thing crashing home. It became very clear, very fast (of course I say this in hindsight!) that we had to set up the non profit and do everything we could to tilt the power back in favour of the people and we were lucky enough to team up with the most phenomenal pro bono legal team you could ever ask for.

I’ll never forget them sitting me down in a bar here in San Francisco and saying ‘look Austin, you have to stop doing things so fast, you have to do them legally, you have to set up your organisation and if you want to take on internet censorship and freedom of speech as a human rights issue which was the core of our mission, you have to do it within the letter of the law or it’s not going to be sustainable. So that’s where forming the CRC came in. If you had asked me a year ago whether we would be setting up a non profit I would have said no – we’re just going to release some technology, then I’ll go back to my job and Dan will go back to his, Today, Dan and I are working 60 to 80 hours a week at the CRC and that’s not including the travel which I now consider personal time! It just got so busy, there is so much to take care of and I’m lucky to have such a great team who shares this vision but it’s not an easy or quick undertaking to say that you will provide a whole country with unfiltered internet. It’s not something that happens overnight and I think the foundation of our non profit was just step 1 in doing this the right way and making sure that we are able to meet our goal and remove the ability of oppressive governments to censor and control what people can say online.

AustinHeap-01Could you please explain Haystack to us

Sure. Haystack is a piece of software that was specifically developed to target the Iranian government’s filtering capabilities and mechanisms. Basically what we did right after the election was to provide proxy servers for people in Iran, (we still do) and putting instructions out for how other people could set them up and could volunteer to help people in Iran get access to the internet again. During that process we realised that these proxy servers were simply not sustainable – it’s a cat and mouse game that takes way too much time and energy and it’s not scaleable so that’s where Haystack came in. Dan and I sat down and started talking about how we could push them up against the wall. How could we, with everything we know about their filtering, with Dan and my background, develop a piece of software specific to Iran that will address all of these problems, be scalable, and be easy for users. That’s safe, that’s secure, that’s unblockable, that runs on mac /pc /linux as well as mobile phones. This is what I mean when I talk about sustainable and long-term – there is a big picture here. Haystack is a piece of software that runs on your computer or your mobile device and all of your outbound connections run through Haystack which does 2 things. The first is to encrypt that data so that if it falls in the hands of the authorities or someone with malicious intent, there’s nothing that they could do with it. The second thing that it does is cloak that encrypted data to make it look like normal traffic. The entire concept behind Haystack where its name comes from is finding that little needle is that we hide in 99% of data that’s completely normal. So we don’t look like secure data unlike HTTPS when it puts that little padlock on your browser and it becomes dead clear to anyone watching that you are trying to hide something. It’s also easy to block so instead of going that route we decided it’s better to go on the route where hell we’ll just hide. We’ll just hide in completely normal looking traffic, we’ll just hide inside part of a Skype call, anywhere we can hide some encrypted data.

 Is it specific to Iranian filters or could it work in say China?

Haystack was designed to address only Iran’s infrastructure and there was zero consideration of any other infrastructures. Now will this technique work in China? Possibly. Have we tested it? No.  One of the funnier examples is how on flights they will filter the internet. I cannot be on flights without internet – it drives me crazy, and on Virgin for example, they’ll de-prioritise gaming packets or they’ll block Skype packets so I’ve tested Haystack on Virgin and it works, but generally speaking, Haystack does not function outside Iran. If you try to use our software and you are anywhere except Iran you cannot connect to the network.

And that’s primarily because we’re a tiny year old non profit and we simply don’t have the resources to take on China, Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela – there are so many important countries where this slippery slope to censorship is being oiled up . I don’t know why there is such a resurgence in censorship right now but the thing they don’t understand is that you can’t have the internet and only take it for the chunks that you want. That’s not the way this works, that’s not the way this was designed and taking this very open peer to peer system and trying to shove it into this censorship mould doesn’t work and yet there’s so many different countries going down this path.

How did you alert people in Iran to the possibilities of Haystack

Through all kinds of weird channels – you name it we’ve probably gone through it. Everything from personal friends who are Persians here in San Francisco to people that I’ve met through Twitter. I have many good contacts in Iran, some that I’ve met through Twitter and some who’ve emailed me and said that they have heard about me on Voice of America… you know it’s all been very, very organic.

AustinHeap-02You’re clearly very open. Have you had any threats against you or any hacking attempts?

Funny you should ask that. I was just last night wondering when my site was going to go down. There’s been plenty of attempts, plenty, to the point where I don’t even monitor or pay attention to them anymore. My machine is locked down as best it can be, and while there are a few more extreme things I could do, internet attacks are internet attacks and you just have to be ready for them. I’m ready and I hope that I will be resilient in the face of them. In terms of physical threats outside of your run of the mill internet death threats which are a dime a dozen, there’s clearly a group of people that’s happy with the work that we’re doing on a human right level even outside of Iran and there is clearly a group of people that think I have no business doing this. I think one of the most shocking comments that I’ve had said to me is “don’t you understand that Ahmadinejad  is our Obama’. I didn’t even know what to say for a good minute and I just started questioning life.

I think it’s important to point out that we’re not a political organisation. From where I personally stand, I don’t understand why anyone in their right mind would shoot, kill, jail and torture people that have an opinion contrary to theirs. It just blows my mind. We want to make sure that people can have the conversation and have it safely. What they want to talk about, none of us at the organisation care. We just think that everyone has the right to have the chance to have an opinion, to have a chance to speak their mind and not be afraid that if they don’t agree that they’ll end up dead or that their family will be missing the next week.

When we were researching you for this interview, something popped up that effectively accused you and your organisation of being a front for the CIA and Mossad. What do you say to that?

I’ll show you my bank account!! Trust me, it hurts just looking at it. There are just so many things I can’t do. I can’t go out to dinner, can’t go for a drink in a bar there’s just zero money. So that’s the most straightforward answer but I think it’s unfortunate that there is so much distrust in the community. From a tech standpoint if I were concerned that my communications were being monitored even after using something like Haystack, what I would do is I would run Tor or I would run other encryption software on top of Haystack. so Haystack will let you get around the firewall and Tor will give you that additional layer of encryption if you feel that’s necessary and I would completely encourage people to do that. You know no one has any reason to trust me or trust the person next to them. I don’t remember the first time someone accused me of being CIA but I was just so, so confused. I don’t even have health care, don’t people in the CIA get health care? So you know there’s only so much I can do to fight that but I think our actions speak louder.

How are things looking on the donation front.

We are trying to get proper funding, and trying to get grants from different foundations but without those micro donations online we would not have been able to put the organisations together or pay for all the travel. We would not have been able to pay for everything from printing out supplies for when we go to speak to someone or when we go to present in DC – I mean it’s really non stop expenses. But at this point I think it’s better for the donations to be used directly for the non profit and hopefully we’ll get the organisation to employ Dan, myself and the other people we need to do this on a large scale.  Just for the time being I think our assets are better focused – I mean our bandwidth bill every month for the servers cost $10,000 a piece.

They’re really powerful machines but when you say you’re going to provide Iran with unfiltered internet, people don’t get how big of an undertaking that is. So I’m kind of at the stage where I need to decide if we can pay ourselves or our server bill.

What is more dangerous, censorship or the illusion of freedom?

Actual clinical cut off where people look for ways to get round it or the insidious assault of advertising and filtered news that is much more prevalent in the western world than in repressed societies. It’s like comparing killing someone with a gun or a knife. They’re both bad. I think that the bigger threat is going to come from this insidious censorship that the west has. It’s largely the media’s fault I think. I feel like in America if the story is not going to get high enough ratings it’s not worth running. And we are seeing this in the case of Iran and in Haiti. If you look at the way American news just jumps into a tragedy and I don’t want to call them ambulance chasers…

If it bleeds it leads.

Oh my God that’s horrible.

It’s their line!

That’s a great quote “if it bleeds it leads”. You threw me through a loop with that one! I think that the bigger threat is going to come from this self censorship, and if you look at Australia right now; they are slowly getting into the censorship area and the problem with the slippery slope as I call censorship is that people don’t realise it until it’s too late and I hate this saying but freedom isn’t free and if people aren’t defending it each step of the way and demanding something better from their news organisation they have no expectation of freedom. In America, we have this whole net neutrality debate going on where I don’t even understand the question. Comcast should not be able to censor some of my internet and not censor the other chunk of my internet. They are a provider and should stay out of that entire business. But people won’t fight for little things like that and I think that that is what is ultimately going to be a larger threat. I never have to worry about waking up one morning wondering if my cell phone is going to work that day. I never have to wake up and wonder if text messaging has been blocked by the government. And if people aren’t diligent it’s only a hop-skip away from that being a reality.

Do you think that’s a major problem in democratic societies. People are so convinced they are free and are so comfortable with the idea of being free that they forget to be diligent?

I have a quote that sums up my opinion on life: “People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they avoid”.

What an excellent quote

And it’s so true, people walk around convinced that they are super free and believing that they are thinking for themselves. You have to go out of the echo chamber to even begin thinking for yourself and if you stay inside the chamber, the only thing you are going to think about is Tiger Woods and there’s plenty of people that do that. I’m so spoiled by living in San Francisco where most people I meet are aware of what’s going on in Iran and they are active in technology or politics. I ran into one person a couple of weeks back and he was asking me what I do and I said ‘do you remember the election in Iran over the summer and he goes “no what’s going on?” But you have to remember that’s most people at least here in the States. It doesn’t pay to be, not pay but it’s not seen as essential to be informed

There’s two questions I often get that drive me insane: One is ‘when are you going to visit Iran?’  Don’t know but probably not soon.

Doubt that they would have the red carpet ready.

Seriously!! The second question is ‘you are not Persian so why are you doing this?’

That misses the point entirely doesn’t it?

Well you know we’re all humans to start with. Everything else is systems that we use to divide each other and to self segregate and just spare me that. I just think that too often people lose sight of that. The people that only pay attention to their home town news forget we are all participants in a shaping new global economy. Internet is now king and I think that’s beautiful and amazing because it’s giving us all a chance to be involved in something that’s not just 10 miles around our house. But people still have to have the drive – the internet has made all this information available but it never has and never will provide the drive

Long term are you optimistic about the internet and the general democratisation of information?

Absolutely. There’s so many times when the internet has lived up to what I know it can be and I half say this jokingly and half seriously but I’m proud of the internets and that’s plural. I think the internet has time and time again shown the power and compassion of humanity –  it happens every day in big ways and small ways and I think that this is just an unstoppable force.

Yeah. It’s so bizarre that this thing came out of military technology and in a world where things are getting more and more locked down and you’ve got Patriot acts here and there that this phenomenon continues to burn brightly.

Well the question is going to be how governments around the world, I didn’t even know the BBC thing was airing, It’s kinda hard for me to pay attention to what’s happening when all of a sudden I start getting all of these emails asking if Haystack will work in the UK so that people can use facebook without being worried about Big Brother and that’s how I figured out that it had aired.

That’s extraordinary and I think that the problem is that the UK much like the US in the last 10 years, civil liberties have taken a major nose dive. You know they want to introduce biometric identification, I mean you never had to present your ID to a policeman ever in your life suddenly it’s going to have DNA and retina scans and again it’s like the previous point cos 90% of the people are going along with it cos they believe they live in a democracy but I think that people don’t realise that it actually costs governments quite a lot of money to monitor and scan and to pay attention to what your personal facebook is saying and countries like that just don’t have the resources, don’t care enough.

Well I think that well I mean I’m all for real ID but mainly cos I have too many identification cards and I’m sick of using them. But I think that one of the hard things for people in America is what is worth making noise over I mean you’ll see these epic month long political battles play out on CNN and Fox news over the tiniest stuff I mean if you take the health care debate, how much time has been spent on ????reform (35.46) which is .5%  of our health care spending. It’s like shut up! This has nothing to do with the big problem. But I it just makes me mad when we spend so much time….

But isn’t that censorship in itself? Where you have an issue but the news media focuses on something that is sensational that actually distracts from the jor bulk of what’s actually happening?

Right and because of this self imposed censorship, when people get so caught up in these tiny little things that are just media stories, the little media stories can end up just ruining the much bigger thing and that’s completely a form of self censorship. I mean censorship is not just an active thing it’s a passive thing too and everyone that gets up in arms about these tiny little issues and starts petitions about them you know the tea party people. Its equivalent to putting duck tape on your mouth you know that by giving in to this, I just…for the life of me I don’t understand how they get ratings from this stuff but then I watch MTV and I quickly understand why CNN looks like MTV.

Yeah CNN is awful you know. Your thing went out on the BBC and BBC worldwide is actually pretty poor but BBC in the UK is fantastic it has to be said.

Oh I’ve been torrenting BBC programmes since I was in like middle school. I’m very jealous that I can’t like pay the BBC like 20 bucks a month.

The funny thing is I actually live in Marrakech in Morocco right now and I’ve got a very large satellite dish pointer towards England and I get it all.

Wow that’s nice. Yeah can’t do that here wish I could.