Washington approves software for Iranians

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Washington has authorized a new program designed to prevent Iran from filtering the internet and blocking websites. It's the first such program for use inside Iran. Cyrus Farivar reports.

MARCO WERMAN: In Washington today, President Obama continued to secure pledges from world leaders to safeguard their nuclear weapons even as he continued an intensive campaign to ratchet up pressure on Iran. For its part, Tehran today brushed aside the possibility of more international sanctions and Iran's President even issued a taunt of sorts. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called it a scientific fact that help from Iran is the U.S. President's only chance to succeed considering the crises he faces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to sanctions, the Obama administration is also pursuing new avenues to help Iranian citizens online. Last week the U.S. government, for the first time, explicitly authorized a new anti-internet filtering program for use inside Iran. Cyrus Farivar reports.

CYRUS FARIVAR: There are lots of anti-filtering tools out there. But before Haystack, no one had designed anything specifically for use in Iran. And none had been officially sanctioned by the American government.

AUSTIN HEAP: We hope that within a year we'll see some substantial numbers and be able to get a large, large number of people back online in a safe manner.

FARIVAR: That's Austin Heap, the 26-year-old co-creator of Haystack. Since last summer, Heap has been helping to get Iranians around government filters that block sites ranging from BBC Persian to Facebook. And he says he's received tacit encouragement from Obama administration officials. Heap says that Haystack does two things. First, it encrypts all online activity, emails, web pages, Twitter, anything. That means anyone conducting surveillance on a particular online connection will see gibberish, a code that's very hard to crack.

HEAP: The second thing that it does is it hides this encrypted data in what looks like normal traffic. It appears as if you're doing all of the things that are completely allowed or approved by the government. So we take that encrypted data and just hide it.

FARIVAR: That's where Haystack's slogan comes in, "good luck finding that needle". Heap says it's nearly impossible for authorities to detect that users are trying to access prohibited content. But for the most part, users will have to get Haystack online, and that's likely to be quickly blocked. That's why Heap hopes to smuggle the program into Iran on USB keys, DVDs and other computer storage devices. Critics suggest that Haystack may not live up to its hype. Heap hasn't let any industry folks see the program, so some doubt that it will work in a real world scenario, or whether Iran will be able to stifle its use. Despite this, and the problems with distribution, Heap hopes that within a year, Haystack could have hundreds of thousands, or even millions of users. Some of those users may find out about it through Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist who was imprisoned several years ago for what he wrote on his blog. He now lives in San Francisco. Memarian says that even though the Iranian government will likely see Haystack as a political act, in fact, it's an act of solidarity and moral courage.

OMID MEMARIAN: The more we provide access for that, the more we give a chance to have a normal life and it's not just for political preferences. Iranians cannot use their internet for educational purposes, for business purposes.

FARIVAR: Memarian points out that many benign websites are blocked in Iran like online courses, or even the website of the University of Essex, because it contains the word "sex". The Obama administration is hoping that Haystack will allow Iranians to get access to independent news sources and be able to organize politically through social networking websites that are currently banned. But even if Haystack does allow Iranians to get around government censors, there's no guarantee that it will substantially change Iranian society, or even the government's attitude. Nader Entessar, a professor of political science at the University of South Alabama says simply opening up the internet won't bring down the regime.

NADER ENTESSAR: We should look at it in terms of a major tool, even a very effective tool to pressure Iran to change its policies, let's say in the nuclear arena or other areas.

FARIVAR: While it is theoretically possible to convert Haystack to be used in other countries, this version is designed specifically for use in Iran, as it blocks use for anyone outside of Iran. Plus, Heap says that he's got his hands full with Iran for the time being, but that hasn't stopped many requests for similar anti-filtering software for other online censorship hotspots around the world, especially China and Cuba. For The World, I'm Cyrus Farivar.