Aerial shot of campus.

Outsmarting Internet Censorship

In many countries, internet censorship is a tool used by governments to prevent free speech and the free flow of information. More than half the world’s internet users live in places where online activity is censored or restricted, according to a report from the watchdog organization Freedom House. Many organizations are working to break through that censorship to help these citizens advance their human rights.

Researchers at Montclair State and Princeton University have received a three-year, $1,040,850 grant from the National Science Foundation for a collaborative project that will explore ways to elude internet censorship. “We’re trying to achieve this goal by using reverse engineering to understand how online censorship is enforced, and then to develop methods to evade detection,” says researcher and Computer Science Associate Professor Christopher Leberknight.

He and Linguistics Associate Professor Anna Feldman are working with researchers from Princeton and Purdue University on the project that incorporates computer science, information security, network analysis and linguistics.

“This will allow us to identify certain weaknesses in the censorship system and develop ways to push content through.”

Christopher Leberknight

“The first stage is to develop a system to track and monitor content to determine what content is being blocked,” says Leberknight. The researchers are developing computer programs that analyze text from articles, determine if it’s contentious, and then follow it as it is pushed through internet channels in China, which has a sophisticated censorship system. They will see in real time what is being blocked.

“This will allow us to identify certain weaknesses in the censorship system and develop ways to push content through,” says Leberknight.

Students are assisting with a range of tasks, including working on statistical models for the analysis, helping create software to predict and classify content, and building front-end applications.

Their ultimate goal is to develop an anticensorship system that would be published and freely available to others, who can then push out information that would otherwise be censored.

“This would enable citizens in countries that have heavily enforced censorships to freely express ideas on the internet,” says Leberknight.