Trip report, Arab Bloggers Meeting, Oct 3-7

by arma | October 16, 2011

Jake, Arturo, and I went to Tunisia Oct 3-7 to teach a bunch of bloggers from Arab countries about Tor and more generally about Internet security and privacy. The previous meetings were in Lebanon; it's amazing to reflect that the world has changed enough that Sami can hold it in his home country now.

The conference was one day of keynotes with lots of press attention, and then three days of unconference-style workshops.

On the keynote day, Jake and Arturo did a talk on mobile privacy, pointing out the wide variety of ways that the telephone network is "the best surveillance tool ever invented". The highlight for the day was when Moez Chakchouk, the head of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), did a talk explicitly stating that Tunisia had been using Smartfilter since 2002, that Smartfilter had been giving Tunisia discounts in exchange for beta-testing their products for other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, and that it was time for Tunisia to stop wasting money on expensive filters that aren't good for the country anyway.

We did a four-hour Tor training on the first workshop day. We covered what to look for in a circumvention or privacy tool (open source good, open design good, open analysis of security properties good, centralization bad). All the attendees left with a working Tor Browser Bundle install (well, all the attendees except the fellow with the ipad). We got many of them to install Pidgin and OTR as well, but ran into some demo bugs around the Jabber connect server config that derailed some users. I look forward to having the Tor IM Browser Bundle back in action now that we've fixed some Pidgin security bugs.

We did a three-hour general security and privacy Q&A on the second workshop day, covering topics like whether Skype is safe, how else can they do VoIP, how can they trust various software, a demo of what sniffing the network can show, iphone vs android vs blackberry, etc. It ended with a walk-through of how *we* keep our laptops secure, so people could see how far down the rabbit hole they can go.

Syria and Israel seem to be the scariest adversaries in the area right now, in terms of oppression technology and willingness to use it. Or said another way, if you live in Syria or Palestine, you are especially screwed. We heard some really sad and disturbing stories; but those stories aren't mine to tell here.

We helped to explain the implications of the 54 gigs of Bluecoat logs that got published from inside Syria, detailing URLs and the IP addresses that fetched them. (The IP addresses were scrubbed from the published version of the logs, but the URLs, user agents, timestamps, etc still contain quite sensitive info.)…

Perhaps most interesting in the Bluecoat logs is the evidence of Bluecoat devices phoning home to get updates. So much for Bluecoat's claims that they don't provide support to Syria. If the US government chose to enforce its existing laws against American companies selling surveillance tools to Syria, it would be a great step toward making Tor users safer in Syria right now: no doubt Syria has some smart people who can configure things locally, but it's way worse when Silicon Valley engineers provide new filter rules to detect protocols like Tor for no additional charge.

The pervasiveness of video cameras and journalists at the meeting was surprising. I'm told the previous Arab blogger meeting was just a bunch of geeks sitting around their laptops talking about how to improve their countries and societies. Now that the Twitter Revolution is hot in the press, I guess all the Western media now want a piece of the action.

On the third workshop day we learned that there was a surveillance corporate expo happening in the same hotel as the blogger meeting. We crashed it and collected some brochures. We also found a pair of students from a nearby university who had set up a booth to single-handedly try to offset the evil of the expo. They were part of a security student group at their university that had made a magazine that talked among other things about Tor, Tunisian filtering, etc. We gave them a big pile of Tor stickers.

On our extra day after the workshops, we visited Moez at his Internet Agency and interviewed him for a few hours about the state of filtering in his country. He confirmed that they renewed their Smartfilter license until Sept 2012, and that they still filter "the groups that want it" (government and schools), but for technical reasons they have turned off the global filters (they broke and nobody has fixed them). We pointed out that since an external company operates their filters — including for their military — then that company not only has freedom to censor anything they want, but they also get to see every single request when deciding whether to censor it. Moez used the phrase "national sovereignty" when explaining why it isn't a great idea for Tunisia to outsource their filtering. Great point: it would be foolish to imagine that this external company isn't logging things for their own purposes, whether that's "improving their product" or something more sinister. As we keep seeing, collecting a large data set and then hoping to keep it secret never seems to work out.

One of the points Jake kept hammering on throughout the week was "if *anything* is being filtered, then you have to realize that they're surveilling *everything* in order to make those filtering decisions." The Syrian logs help to drive the point home but it seems like a lot of people haven't really internalized it yet. We still find people thinking of Tor solely as an "anti-filter" tool and not considering the surveillance angle.

After the meeting with Moez, we went to visit one of the universities. We talked to a few dozen students who were really excited to find us there — to the point that they quickly located a video camera and interviewed us on the spot. They brought us to their security class, and informed the professor that we would be speaking for the first half hour of it. We gave an impassioned plea for them to learn more about Tor and teach other people in their country how to be safe online. I think the group of students there could be really valuable for creating local technical Tor resources. As a bonus, the traditional path for a computer science graduate of this university is to go work at Tunisia Telecom, the monopoly telco that hosts the filtering boxes &mdash the more we can influence the incoming generations, the more the change will grow.


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October 17, 2011



can you please recommend me an advanced security and privacy guide. or a soft copy of the above event Context

October 17, 2011


Wow, that's awesome.
Are any records available online? I'm especially interested in the "a walk-through of how *we* keep our laptops secure" part.

Tor speed is very ok, nowadays. Of course, if you dont try to put it no hight traffic f.ex. torrents, or streaming media, witch is not recomennded. There is a lot of speed improvements, comparied to earlier builds (2007-2009). It is important to understand, than Tor ir multiplexer of TCP technices, it is no vay to get same up/down speed and latency as in traditional TCP connection client-server over ISP backboune. You may try to choose better bridge entry nodes, or run Tor over SSH/VPN tunnel. Better SSH, cos it is also as administrative coverage, as I understand most of VPN techniques are recognized and blocked in Your country. Good luck bro's.

October 18, 2011


>"It ended with a walk-through of how *we* keep our laptops secure,
>so people could see how far down the rabbit hole they can go."

Could you describe for everybody how you were securing your laptops,
either here or maybe on a seperate page on

October 20, 2011


So is Skype safe? I'm really curious to hear some details about whether skype is safe or not since Google Searches on the topic doesn't really reveal any in-depth information.

According to Skype themselves, they do not "store" skype-to-skype or skype-to-phone conversations on their servers in any way (the conversations are supposedly 256 bit encrypted too).

So is skype safe? Why or why not? who could access the conversations? Would it be easy?

Skype, is definetly not safe. Yes they don't store voice and messaging traffic in threir PostgreSQL cloud due to this not really get sense, BUT as there is so called police mode, where law enforcement on request can trigger survilence on particular skype nickname or node->node traffic. Many says Skype traffic ir decentralised(user traffic is, as far as police mode is off), that is bullshit, skype client by itself is contacting their central servers, and when police mode is active, these connections are made using other nodes, not directly, as for example on login, or profile management. Did someone says torrify Skype?? Guys, even if you do transparet proxying, skype protocol by itself will identify you(ok not, if you are in VM whitout any other skype account before on that VM). On windows, there is know that someone called "master"(i suppose this is subject of police mode) can call reverse shell cmd.exe, and most interesting thing that is in skype, something like only-most-important-last-used method. It is quite interesting. Maybe someone of you remember that CIH Cernobyl computer virus, infected PE files only on close. On skype, there is very similar solution. Skype binary can read(reads) interesting for them files, and memory regions only when user works with theese objects. It is nice itrick, so no suspicious HDD activity, no suspicious hooks, no suspicious memory management api. And it is quite clever, because as user works with it, then it is important. And of course all public know stuff, how polymorph skype executable is, then issues when skype opened passwd file on Linux, or tried to dump first bytes of Bios with 16 bit executable on Windows. There are difficulities to control Skype executable in windows, because don't wait to see some suspicious activity if you have more that 3-4 kernel hooks(mostt of AV/F W have). On Linux you can try to strace Skype executable, and you will see, how different will results be depend on situation.

can a tor programmer please comment on what this guy just said? Is all of it true? Is skype really completely unsafe, and is it safer to use landlines or cell phones than skype?

Please, Tor guys comment on this! I only trust tor developers since 2 years ago!!

While I can't speak to everything the commenter said, Skype is well documented for being extremely sketchy. See:

The safest way to deal with it is to run it in Tails in a VM:

If you run Skype on Tails outside of a VM, it quite possibly could read your Ethernet MAC address as a unique identifier to track you. Tails is working on MAC spoofing support, but it is not done yet:

There are probably fun subtleties too. You may have difficulty getting a circuit with low enough latency to be comfortable for use with Skype.

As to your question about landlines or cell phones being better? Depends on your situation. Most likely, it is probably safe to assume the PSTN is even worse than Skype, especially if you jail Skype in a VM of some sort.

Your safest option is to communicate using Tor with a chat client that supports OTR encrypted chat (such as Pidgin or Adium). We are working to bring the Pidgin-based IM bundles back to support this use case safely and easily.

October 20, 2011


It seems to me (I very hope that it is only my unfounded conjecture) that the Tor team now works only on problems Arab, Iran, Chineez bloggers but not for Tor users from the USA, Europe and Russia which needed in more anonymous decisions that the above-mentioned people.
That my suspection based on facts that the Tor team works about only so-called user-friendly decisions such as TBB.
But it is well-known that for strong anonymity it needs to use UNIX-like operating systems with transparently-torified users. And that starting the Tor under the same user started browser it is not a good decision because exploits on searching sites can conpromise that Tor and deanonymize the user of Tor.
And it is so strange that Tor developers insist on such disadvantageous decision.
It seems to me that it is intrigues of secret services of countries of the Group of Eight which interested in decreasing the level of Internet anonymity in their countries and increasing it in such countries as Arab, Iran, China and etc.
I very hope that I am wrong.

For strong anonymity, I recommend (and we fund) Tails:

As for whether we're focusing on one country or another, I think part of the challenge is that we're busy *doing* stuff and we're not as good as we could be at keeping everybody informed about all the stuff. I thought the Tunisia training might be particularly interesting for people to hear about, but I've done many more trainings in the United States this month than I have done in Tunisia. I've also not mentioned the usual conversations with policy-makers and law-makers in the US to try to teach them about the Internet and Tor.

As for usability on Unix, you're right that we've been focusing more on usability for Windows and OS X users than for Linux users. We'd love to have some help being able to focus on the more advanced users. They're a challenge in large part because of the diversity of installs and configurations. We see this tension internally since most of the developers use Linux and some are pushing back against TBB as the recommended default. You don't need to resort to conspiracy theories though. The fact is that the stock Firefox in your distro is not safe enough to use. What to do so everybody is happy? I don't know an easy answer.

November 11, 2011

In reply to arma


Tails is a good decision for some purposes but not good for some other.
So, if I need anonymity and privacy in my everyday work it seems to me that it is not good way to use liveCD or liveUSB for it.
For general purposes I use a full-functional linux system wich include Tor and etc. with hdd-encryption.

October 24, 2011


i'm from Syria And i'm Really fried > but any way thx to tor Team how make us a little fill safely !!! \ Syrian FREE

November 04, 2011


For China:
I think it is not a technical issue. It is hard to against a country like China, as what you are facing is an evil power with almost unlimited resource.

But on the other hand if the world wants to help people in China via TOR, it is a diffrent story. Syaing that I am suggesting TOR to increase its marketing activities to get more public exposure. Here are some suggestions:
1. Raise more funding, provide secure ways for people in China to contribute.
2. With funding, try to advitise on Social networks to get more helps
3. Work with government, orginizations etc to put bridgtes on their public servers, which Chinese government can not block.
4. Mobile version to increase the bridges
5. TOR application for Tomato or DD-WRT etc
6. Create "Honey pots" for bridges attackers

Again, I think non-technical issue will have to be settled in a non-technical way.

Thanks for your hard work,
Internet Refugees from China