Breaking Out of a Web of Censorship

Illustration by Margaret Hall

In the battle between governments that shackle citizens’ internet use and people chasing freedom on the web, regimes have the advantage: By the time users unravel one scheme, censors can have another one in place.

New work by UMD computer science researchers could shift the balance of power, using artificial intelligence inspired by the principles of genetic evolution to automatically exploit gaps in censors’ logic and identify bugs that would be virtually impossible for programmers to find manually.

The tool known as Geneva (short for Genetic Evasion) evolves its code through successive attempts, or “generations,” keeping instructions that best evade censorship and ditching the rest.

When the researchers tested Geneva against real-world censorship in China, India and Kazakhstan, it found dozens of ways to defeat government controls.

“Ultimately, winning this race means bringing free speech and open communication to millions of users around the world who currently don’t have them,” says Dave Levin, a computer science professor with a joint appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.


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