Digital Weapons Help Dissidents Punch Holes in China’s Great Firewall
Huang has hunched shoulders and a round face thatched with bushy black hair; his bashful mien occasionally retreats into a nervous giggle. He’s no charismatic revolutionary. But by 2002, he had assembled a dozen like-minded Falun Gong-practicing colleagues. In the small garage attached to his four-bedroom bungalow, they developed a digital weapon for their compatriots back in China: a program designed to foil government censorship and surveillance. Dubbed UltraSurf, it has since become one of the most important free-speech tools on the Internet, used by millions from China to Saudi Arabia.
A separate group of Falun Gong practitioners, it turned out, was working on something similar, and in 2006 the two groups joined forces as the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. Most GIFC members spend their days as cubicle-bound programmers and engineers at places ranging from Microsoft to NASA. But off the clock, at night and on weekends, they wage digital guerrilla warfare on the Chinese government’s cyberpolice, matching their technical savvy, donated computers, and home-office resources against the world’s second-largest superpower. Again and again, Beijing has attacked the firewall-beating programs; again and again, the scrappy band of volunteers has defeated those attacks.
The victories don’t come easily. Huang quit a lucrative job to devote all his time to the cause. He has drained almost all of his savings. He had to sell his home and move his family into a rental, where he now works out of a spare room, making ends meet with freelance consulting gigs. Most days he sits in an armless swivel chair, bent over computers set up on a folding table. But there is one major consolation. “More and more people are using our technology,” he says. “And that’s the force that will tear down the Great Firewall.”