System Routes Internet Traffic Around Countries You Don't Trust

Illustration: iStockphoto

Whenever someone sends a website request or email, Internet data packets crossing the world can run afoul of data censorship or modification in certain countries, such as China. A new system provides a way for Internet users to route their data around specified “forbidden” countries and gives proof of whether or not the routing succeeded, its inventors revealed last week.

The Alibi Routing system relies on a peer-to-peer network to relay data packets around specified forbidden countries on their way to a final destination. In this case, the “peers” are other Internet users running the Alibi Routing software. The system provides proof of successful or unsuccessful routing by calculating whether a packet was at a specific geographic location far enough away from the undesired countries so that data could not have passed through.

"With recent events, such as censorship of Internet traffic, suspicious 'boomerang routing' where data leaves a region only to come back again, and monitoring of users' data, we became increasingly interested in this notion of empowering users to have more control over what happens with their data," said Dave Levin, an assistant research scientist in the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at the University of Maryland, in a press release.

Levin and his colleagues presented their research last week at the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Data Communication (ACM SIGCOMM) conference in London.  They developed the system with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and an Amazon Web Services in Education grant. 

Most Internet users typically don’t have much control over the path their Internet data travels. That can prove problematic because routers in certain parts of the world will modify data passing through and effectively censor the content. In 2012, researchers showed that Domain Name System (DNS) requests passing through China undergo the same risk of censorship as similar requests coming from a Chinese resident.

The Alibi Routing software provides proof of the data’s path by using measurements of round-trip times and the GPS coordinates of routers. Its “alibi” system chooses relays far away enough from user-specified forbidden zones that the data would undergo a noticeable lag if it traveled through both the relay and the forbidden zone.

Researchers tested Alibi Routing with a simulated network of 20,000 participants. They also chose forbidden countries such as China, Japan,, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United States and others.

Success in finding an “alibi” route depends in part on how central the specified forbidden zones are to Internet routing. But the simulations suggested the system could find a safe route more than 85 percent of the time. The team hopes to publicly release Alibi Routing as an Internet browser plug-in by the end of 2015.

Such a system could be immediately deployed without requiring “public key infrastructure (PKI) or modifications to existing routing protocols or switching hardware; it does not require synchronized clocks; and it does not require access to any information about the underlying routing topology of the Internet,” the researchers wrote in their conference paper. All it needs is individual Internet users to use the software.

"The more participants this type of peer-to-peer system has in different geographical locations, the more useful it will be," Levin said.

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