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RSS news reader which uses the Dust blocking-resistant protocol engine to deliver news feeds while circumventing Internet filtering

The most censored content on the Internet is blogs. Unfortunately, blogs are also a primary means of obtaining news in areas where broadcast media is censored. This means that the people that are most dependent on Internet access for news are also the least likely to have it. That's why fighting Internet censorship should start with RSS news feeds. Operator is more than just a news reader, it's a way for people to know what's happening in their own country, sometimes right across the street, when traditional media fails.

UPDATE: Check out this press coverage of Operator and the Dust engine.

Austin Chronicle: http://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/screens/2014-01-10/kickstart-your-weekend-civics-edition/

New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22029444.900-throw-off-the-spooks-by-disguising-your-web-traffic.html

For the past 4 years I have been developing Dust, a polymorphic protocol engine which circumvents Internet filtering. It's an open source engine which you can download right now. However, it's not very useful until it's integrated into an actual application.

Operator News is an RSS news reader application which uses the Dust engine to circumvent Internet filtering which blocks access to news sources. By using the Dust engine, RSS content can be disguised as other sorts of traffic such as email, Skype, or chat. This is done automatically and requires no configuration from the user. The user simply sees their news appear in the application just as you'd expect.

UPDATE: Check out these videos about the technology, in order of most humorous to most technical.

Nerd Nite Austin: http://vimeo.com/83801515

Defcon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3z56andRyCY

UIUC Reflections|Projections: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfLh3tr2amk#t=1754

Operator differs from other censorship circumvention solutions in several key ways:

  • Focus on censorship circumvention rather than anonymity
  • Specifically for RSS news feeds, not a general purpose proxy
  • Adaptive to changing filtering conditions

This unique focus allows for Operator to be a more effective means of delivering news due to its increased efficiency, adaptability, and optimization for this specific use.

At its core, Operator uses the Dust protocol engine for circumventing Internet censorship. Dust is different from other circumvention technologies because rather than being just a new protocol it is a protocol generating engine which can encode the same message in many different ways. Given particular filtering conditions, the Dust engine can adapt to encode messages to circumvent the current filtering.

I am peer-to-peer software developer who creates tools to circumvent Internet censorship. In 1999 I co-founded the Freenet project to create a censorship-resistant publishing platform. When working for BitTorrent, Inc. I was given the difficult task of trying to reason with the Internet service providers that were engaging in BitTorrent throttling. This began my interest in protocol-based network filtering and finding ways to circumvent it. More recently I worked for the Tor project on their next generation blocking-resistant protocol systems such as obfsproxy and obfs3. I am currently a PhD candidate in Information Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where I am studying Deep Packet Inspection hardware and figuring out how to defeat it. My primary research project has been Dust, the engine behind Operator. In terms of defeating the filtering technology which is used to block access to news, I have a considerable amount of experience in dealing with Internet censorship circumvention generally and protocol-based filtering (sometimes referred to as Deep Packet Inspection) specifically.

I also have experience with writing practical and usable software for real users. On the Freenet project I worked on fproxy, the original web interface to accessing Freenet content. This lead to many innovations which are now considered core features such as freesites and key indices. I also started the Everything Over Freenet project which provided the first newsgroup interface to the Freenet network. At BitTorrent I was the Director of Product Management for the enterprise division, where I worked on making BitTorrent into a tool which could be used business users such as game studios and video streaming sites. In addition to all of my work on open source and peer-to-peer projects, I have also developed applications professionally for many years. I even have an app on the iOS app store. It's a great game called Tumblewords, check it out!

I'm an experienced developer of this particular kind of application. I've also been a product manager, so I know that I can't do this alone. The interface will be designed by a real UI/UX designer. An additional developer with more relevant expertise will most likely do the heavy lifting when it comes to fiddly bits like cryptography code. Being from Texas, I like to say, "It's not my first time at the rodeo."

Operator Updates. Thank you for backing this project! By becoming a backer you will get access to exclusive backer-only updates on the project.

Operator Soundtrack (download). The original project soundtrack, great for hacking code, road trips, and getting psyched up before a first date. You will get a download link for DRM-free MP3 and Ogg files.

 Operator Soundtrack (CD). The original project soundtrack, great for hacking code, road trips, and getting psyched up before a first date. You will receive a physical CD.

UPDATE: Now ships anywhere in the world.

UPDATE: Now includes a download copy of the soundtrack as well.

Operator Invite. You will receive 1 invite that you can use or give to a friend for access to the Operator News application and 1 year of blocking-resistant news service.

UPDATE: Now includes the soundtrack CD and the soundtrack download, shipped anywhere in the world.

Development Videos. We will be recording behind-the-scene videos of the making of the project. You will get access to this exclusive material of how the project is made and the lives of the people that are making it. You will also receive 1 invite. 

UPDATE: Now includes the soundtrack CD and the soundtrack download, shipped anywhere in the world.

UPDATE: Now includes educational videos. In additional to documentary style videos of the development process, we will include videos on practical design and development of censorship circumvention software.

Operator T-shirt. This is a limited edition Operator t-shirt created just for this Kickstarter campaign. You will also receive 1 invite.

UPDATE: Now ships anywhere in the world. For international shipping choose International Operator T-shirt reward tier.

Operator Poster. This is a limited edition high quality silk screened Operator poster created just for this Kickstarter campaign. You will also receive 1 invite. 

UPDATE: Now ships anywhere in the world.

UPDATE: Now only $125.

NEW TIER: Operator Lucky Pack - $150

Operator Lucky Pack. This is all of the shipped rewards. You get the soundtrack CD and download, the t-shirt, and the poster. If we add any more shipped rewards you will get those as well. The lucky pack will also include an extra secret item not available separately. You will also receive 1 invite.

Operator Hangout. You and your fellow backers will be invited to a one hour Google Hangout with the team where we can answer live any questions you have, update you on the progress of the project, and talk about life and the Internet. You will also receive 2 invites for the Operator service. 

UPDATE: You will now also receive a Lucky Pack.

Dedicated Hosted Operator Node. You will have your own, private Operator proxy node, allowing you access to news 24/7. Since this is a dedicated node, only you and the Operator team will know of its location, making it more resistant to attack. You will receive 10 invites to distribute to friends.

UPDATE: You will now also receive 2 Lucky Packs.

Operator Patron. You will receive a personal letter from the team thanking you for your support and revealing some of our hopes, dreams, and secret plans for the future. Additionally, you will get your own dedicated hosted private node, 5 limited edition t-shirts, 5 copies of the soundtrack, 5 posters, and 10 invites to the service. 

UPDATE: You will now get 5 Lucky Packs instead of separate items.

Official Sponsoring Organization. You will have your own dedicated hosted private proxy, 10 limited edition t-shirts, 10 copies of the soundtrack, 10 posters, and 10 invites to the service. Your organization will be listed as an official sponsor on the Operator website.

UPDATE: You will now get 10 Lucky Packs instead of separate items.

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

Building blocking-resistant protocols is hard. The filtering changes all the time, so it's always a moving goal to circumvent censorship. By the time the application ships, the filters may have been updated, requiring additional time to update the application to make it effective.

This is our team's first OS X application. Our background is in iOS apps. While the tools and APIs are similar, it may take some additional time to make things works the OS X way. It's an opinionated platform with many unique quirks.

Security is a key concern for this application and it seems like the one thing you can be sure of with security problems is that you'll always find more of them than you expect. We will not ship code which we believe to be insecure.

We all have other obligations currently. We have day jobs, contracts, school work, family vacations, and road trips planned. Since we do not know if the Kickstarter will succeed or fail, we have to plan the best we can with the uncertainty. We hope that we will raise enough money to work on this project full time, but it may take some time to disentangle for existing commitments.

This is not our first time shipping software. We know what it takes to get things done. When I was the Director of Product Management at BitTorrent, Inc. I would often say, "I'm not here to mess around. I'm here to ship products." Collectively the members of our team have shipped many products. However, this is the first time we've done it by ourselves, with no one telling us what products we're supposed to build. It's exciting and it's intimidating. We believe in this project. We think it's important and we think it's something people need which no one is going to build unless we do. We're not on Kickstarter to make money. We're not going to be the next Facebook. We're here to ship code and we need your help to make that possible.

FAQ

  • Part of the Kickstarter funds will be used to maintain a hosted server for at least one year for use by all of the backers that chose a reward tier that included an invite to the service. After a year we will evaluate the operating cost of the service and decide how to continue offering it to backers.

    We have no intention at this time of running a for-profit service or billing users directly. We also have no intention of leaving the backers without a usable service after a year. How exactly we proceed will depend on how much the service costs to run. For instance, we might do another crowdfunding campaign in a year to fund the next year of server operation.

    Also, all of the Operator code is open source, including the server, so you can always run your own instance of the server.

    Last updated:
  • Blocking access to the service is exactly the problem that the underlying Dust engine was designed to solve. It will be difficult for the attacker to determine that there is anything going on which they would want to block. Additionally, for certain tiers of donors I will be running private servers with rotating IP addresses to address blocking of the servers. My eventual goal is to run one server per non-profit. There will be no public servers, although I might maintain a special separate Kickstarter backer server.

    Last updated:
  • Yes, 100% open source always. Operator is based on the Dust engine, which has been open source for years (https://github.com/blanu/Dust). The Operator reader itself will also be open source. The server that it communicates with to fetch news will also be open source. All things will be open source. There really is no other option for this kind of software.

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  • Operator will initially be released for OS X.

    The choice of support operating systems is inherently the most controversial part of a project, as if the one you use isn't selected then you may feel negatively about the project.

    Let me explain why we chose OS X and why this choice is not an attack on your operating system of choice.

    There are 5 operating systems on which people I've talked to have expressed an interest in running Operator: Android, iOS, Linux, OS X, and Windows. Personally, I run and develop software professionally on ALL of these platforms. Each of these has its own set of benefits and challenges for developers. In order to make this project viable, we had to choose one. We chose OS X for the following reasons:

    - Many early adopters (such as Kickstarter backers) run OS X
    - We can reasonably support only the newest OS X, so there is only one version to develop
    - There is only one reasonable choice for the GUI components (Cocoa)

    We chose OS X not because we think it is the best operating system, but because shipping Operator on this OS is going to be the fastest and easiest of the available options. We need to get builds of Operator out to testers as soon as possible so that we can iterate quickly on the core concept, the security of the application, and the usability of the user interface. Only through feedback from our backers will we be able to create something worthy of our eventually much larger target user community.

    This is not the final Operator, this is Operator 1.0, where we show that it can be done. From there we will branch out to other operating systems, hopefully until we have all of them. So what operating systems will we support for Operator 2.0? That's up to you. As a backer, you will have the opportunity to let us know what operating system we should make our #1 priority for the next version. This will be sent out in your backer survey once the project is funded and will be available to all backers $10 and up.

    Last updated:
  • This is a fundamental problem for all censorship circumvention software. This exact situation occurred when I was working on Freenet and it's a daily reality for Tor developers. The positive side of this attack being so popular is that we do not have to invent solutions from scratch. Censorship circumvention software is in use all over the world every day, so there must be a solution.

    The general approach is to find other channels by which to distribute the software besides the primary website. A simple and popular answer is mirroring the software onto multiple sites. It can also be sent via physical media such as CDs and flash drives. Of course, once you have a copy of the software, you can download updates over Dust, which will circumvent the filtering which blocks access to the website.

    Operator is different than other circumvention tools because there will be no public signup or download. The software will be sent directly to Kickstarter backers. The long-term goal for the project is to work with non-profits in each country and distribute the software through them. So essentially the software distribution is always done through private, decentralized channels which are harder to block than a centralized website.

    While there will be no public distribution of binaries, you can always download the source code from github and compile it yourself.

    Last updated:
  • After the Kickstarter, there will be no public signups for the service. The only way for the public to use the service is to be a backer of the Kickstarter. The information for connecting to the service will only be made available to the Kickstarter backers and not posted publicly.

    The long-term model for new users is to work with non-profits in countries that have blocked access to news. Each non-profit will get its own dedicated server. The funding for these servers will be arranged between Operator and the non-profit, probably from grant funding. There will be no direct billing of users and server information will only be distributed by the non-profits to their own users. This will make identification and tracking of users difficult for those that seek to block access for these users.

    Last updated:
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    Operator Updates. Thank you for backing this project! By becoming a backer you will get access to exclusive backer-only updates on the project.

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    Operator Soundtrack (download). The original project soundtrack, great for hacking code, road trips, and getting psyched up before a first date. You will get a download link for DRM-free MP3 and Ogg files.

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    Operator Soundtrack (CD). The original project soundtrack, great for hacking code, road trips, and getting psyched up before a first date. You will receive a physical CD. (US only)

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    Operator Invite. You will receive 1 invite that you can use or give to a friend for access to the Operator News application and 1 year of blocking-resistant news service.

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    Development Videos. We will be recording behind-the-scene videos of the making of the project. You will get access to this exclusive material of how the project is made and the lives of the people that are making it. You will also receive 1 invite.

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    Operator T-shirt. This is a limited edition Operator t-shirt created just for this Kickstarter campaign. You will also receive 1 invite.

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    International Operator T-shirt. This is a limited edition Operator t-shirt created just for this Kickstarter campaign. You will also receive 1 invite. This is the same reward tier as the Operator T-shirt, but with international shipping. We may offer a different design for the international version or it may be the same. It's a surprise!

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    Operator Poster. This is a limited edition high quality silk screened Operator poster created just for this Kickstarter campaign. You will also receive 1 invite.

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    Operator Lucky Pack. This is all of the shipped rewards. You get the soundtrack CD and download, the t-shirt, and the poster. If we add any more shipped rewards you will get those as well. The lucky pack will also include an extra secret item not available separately. You will also receive 1 invite.

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    Operator Hangout. You and your fellow backers will be invited to a one hour Google Hangout with the team where we can answer live any questions you have, update you on the progress of the project, and talk about life and the Internet. You will also receive 2 invites for the Operator service.

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    Dedicated Hosted Operator Node. You will have your own, private Operator proxy node, allowing you access to news 24/7. Since this is a dedicated node, only you and the Operator team will know of its location, making it more resistant to attack. You will receive 10 invites to distribute to friends.

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    Operator Patron. You will receive a personal letter from the team thanking you for your support and revealing some of our hopes, dreams, and secret plans for the future. Additionally, you will get your own dedicated hosted private node, 5 limited edition t-shirts, 5 copies of the soundtrack, 5 posters, and 10 invites to the service.

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    Official Sponsoring Organization. You will have your own dedicated hosted private proxy, 10 limited edition t-shirts, 10 copies of the soundtrack, 10 posters, and 10 invites to the service. Your organization will be listed as an official sponsor on the Operator website.

    Estimated delivery:
Funding period

- (35 days)