Canadian universities study the two sides of the Internet

Published 28 October 2008

Terrorists and hackers use the Internet to spread their nefarious programs; some governments use the Internet to spy on their citizens; Dalhousie is working on a way to spot criminal behavior, while U Toronto keeps censors at bay halfway around the globe

You can say this: Both terrorists (and hackers) and governments seem to appreciate the Internet. The allure for the online plotter is the ability to break into a computer network without being detected. A country with agents monitoring its citizens’ activities (did somebody say China?) can extract digital footprints of individuals who otherwise thought they had some semblance of privacy. The Globe and Mail’s Philip Fine writes that two Canadian universities are now looking closely at these two sides of the Internet. One has been working on a way better to track the early terrorist maneuvers that lead to computer network break-ins. The other has captured data showing that what were thought to be private online communications had, in fact, been directed to a vast repository of information on political dissent.

Dalhousie University in Halifax will work to better visualize traffic patterns of online criminal activity as part of a contract with the U.S. DHS. CA Inc. of New York won the contract and is using more than half of the $815,000 it received to finance the team from Halifax. The goal of the 30-month project is to take vast amounts of information and put it into simplified visuals, thus providing an early detection tool for government and businesses to monitor criminal intrusions on digital networks.

While the Halifax group is developing detective tools, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a research group that tracks how countries engage in censorship and surveillance on the Internet, has already delivered important results from its own detective work. The Lab, which looks for censorship and surveillance in such areas as chat groups, content filters, and social networking providers, unearthed an embarrassment of information on a major communications provider when it discovered that the Chinese-language version of Skype, the Internet text and phone service, had been filtering messages on a vast scale.

Through its monitoring, the Citizen Lab discovered large amounts of text that failed to make it to intended recipients. The messages had been stored in databases run by the Chinese partner of Skype, Tom Online, Inc. Citizen Lab found this thanks to Tom’s apparent lax security, which allowed the Lab to find both encrypted information and the key that would allow them to decrypt it on a publicly accessible Web page.