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OTF’s FY2021 Annual Report

OTF’s FY2021 Annual Report highlights the inventive projects, inspired research fellows, and incredible initiatives that work to advance internet freedom around the globe.

The Open Technology Fund is pleased to announce the release of its Fiscal Year 2021 Annual Report. In this report, you will find the projects, research fellows, and lab services (with an exception for highly sensitive activities) that OTF supported with FY2021 funds from March to December 2022.

During this period, OTF funded over 35 innovative projects to combat censorship and repressive surveillance, eight fellowships to engage in cutting-edge research and examination of information control mechanisms, and numerous rapid response interventions that provided emergency response to individuals and organizations facing digital attacks.

The report catalogs the projects that OTF funded over the past year, and, most importantly, details the efforts and accomplishments of the OTF community and partners from around the world who continue to advance internet freedom in the face of extraordinary odds. Below are highlights from the report.

Surging Support for Circumvention Users

Over the past several years, authoritarian regimes have strengthened their censorship apparatuses and restricted internet access, sparking an increase in demand for OTF’s circumvention tools. The average number of monthly active users (MAUs) has risen from nine million to more than 40 million. This surge is notably evident in countries such as Russia, where usage jumped from around 250,000 to over eight million MAUs following Ukraine’s invasion. Similarly, in Iran, numbers increased from approximately five million to over 25 million MAUs, representing about half of the adult population.

Despite increasingly sophisticated censorship methods, OTF-supported tools maintain high-performance levels, enabling users to quickly, securely, and reliably access blocked content. The significant increase in usage presents a budgetary challenge for the circumvention tools, as funding typically accounts for brief surges, not continuous high-level usage. To address this, OTF established the Surge and Sustain Fund, offsetting the carry cost of users in heavily censored countries. Initial providers under this fund include Psiphon, Lantern, and nthLink, which collectively support almost eight million unique MAUs in Russia and over 20 million in Iran. Though not funded with FY2021 funds, the tools’ support now extends to users in China and Myanmar.

Securing and Enhancing Circumvention Solutions

OTF invested in research to understand authoritarian regimes’ censorship practices and to improve circumvention tools. Collaborating with researchers at Citizen Lab, Censored Planet, and Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) fellow Ramakrishnan Sundara Raman developed a censorship traceroute mechanism to identify the location of devices enforcing censorship through passive and active measurement techniques.

The research of Kathrin Elmenhorst, another ICFP fellow, lays important groundwork for monitoring and overcoming QUIC censorship in the future. QUIC is a fast-growing, new internet protocol that uses encryption by design and is the transport for HTTP/3.

OTF’s efforts also ensured that not only are the Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) we support able to effectively evade censorship but that they are as secure as possible, given that most censoring regimes also surveil circumvention tool users. By examining the endpoints of a VPN tunnel and the low-level packet routing behaviors within the operating system kernels of the VPN client and VPN server, the Attacking VPNs to Challenge Basic Security Assumptions project revealed flaws in VPNs for security and privacy applications, disclosed vulnerabilities to necessary parties, and examined potential fixes.

One of the most daunting tasks for those in authoritarian contexts when it comes to adopting circumvention tools is how to navigate the murky, unregulated VPN market to find a tool that works and that they can trust. To tackle this challenge, the VPNalyzer project created a framework for a systematic and automated investigation into the VPN ecosystem. The framework uses crowdsourced investigations, VPN-provider practice reviews, and a desktop tool for users to test their VPN connection’s security and privacy features. OTF also supported alternative censorship circumvention models, working with the United States Agency for Global Media and others to mirror content online, making it accessible without the need to download a circumvention tool. Another OTF project, Project Icarus, is pioneering new mirroring techniques built on technologies such as Tor and the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) that make mirrors more secure and more difficult to block. Additionally, OTF supported the Observatory on Social Media (OSoME), which developed a suite of online disinformation and manipulation detectors helpful in counteracting content blocking and disinformation-based censorship.

Tooling for Shutdowns

The use of internet shutdowns as a tool of control by authoritarian governments has rapidly evolved over the past several years. While initially considered too costly politically and economically for anything but extreme crises, repressive governments now regularly utilize shutdowns, which can be administered in more targeted and nuanced ways. This makes them less costly for governments and more technologically challenging to mitigate. In response, OTF is funding shutdown mitigation solutions that tackle the technical challenges users face during all types of shutdowns—from targeted communication disablement to total infrastructure blackouts. Two important contributions to the efforts funded with FY2021 funds include Ouinet and SMS Without Borders.

Ouinet is a free, open-source technology that facilitates web content serving through a network of cooperating nodes using peer-to-peer routing and distributed caching of responses. Built as an integration, it can be used to enable a network exchange of cached data to circumvent censorship and mitigate the effects of some forms of internet shutdowns. If a country cuts itself off from the global internet, but national or subnational networks remain functional, Ouinet allows cached content to be shared in a way that mirrors traditional web browsing without needing to pull content from the global internet.

SMS Without Borders patches an important security vulnerability in what has become a common form of shutdown: a regime shuts down mobile data but leaves calling and SMS capabilities unaffected. One consequence of this form of shutdown is that secure messaging apps requiring mobile data are rendered unusable, presenting users with the unsavory choice between communicating via easily surveillable SMS messages or not at all. SMS Without Borders encrypts SMS messages to ensure that if journalists or activists are forced to use SMS during an internet shutdown, the content of their communications remains safe.

Identifying Threats and Advancing Security in Practice

As affordable digital surveillance becomes increasingly accessible to authoritarians, the importance of stringent digital security practices and innovative solutions for journalists, activists, and human rights defenders has heightened. In FY2021, OTF invested in threat identification and tracking, as well as in technologies advancing the state of the art in digital security protections.

The Global Surveillance Database project compiled data from export licensing authorities and reported on the use of surveillance technologies worldwide, including Pegaus in Thailand, IMSI-catchers (portable surveillance tools that act as fake cell phone towers to intercept cell phone traffic) in Indonesia, and global SSy-7 attacks (a security exploit that takes advantage of a weakness in the design of Signaling System 7 that enables data theft and eavesdropping) in Libya, Malaysia, Italy, Nicaragua, and Pakistan.

As advanced surveillance techniques are more commonly available, it’s vital for journalists and human rights organizations to increase their ability to detect and repel digital attacks. The PiRogue Tool Suite is an open-source tool suite that provides a comprehensive forensic and network traffic analysis platform, designed to substantially improve threatened organizations’ capacity to assess mobile device privacy and security.

To further extend protections of vital secure messaging apps, Project Phoenix aims to bring the new Messaging Layer Security (MLS) protocol into maturity in a user-facing application. The implementation of MLS to underpin a secure messenger app has the potential to combine Signal’s metadata minimalism with Matrix’s federation features and Wire’s username-based approach and ease of use.

Secure file transfer is one of the most pressing needs of any journalist in a highly surveilled context. The Filezilla project introduces security, privacy, and usability improvements to an implementation of SFTP, a private and secure protocol for file transfer that is relied on by many users in countries without free internet. Filezilla enables people to use SFTP to transfer files with far greater security guarantees. In addition to on-network and on-device surveillance, OTF has also supported efforts to identify and analyze external surveillance mechanisms, including IMSI-catchers. IMSI-catchers are portable surveillance tools that act as fake cell phone towers to intercept cell phone traffic and are often used for surveillance at particularly crucial moments, such as protests. They present a particularly unique surveillance challenge in that they are very difficult to detect and defend against. The FADE Project expanded studies to detect the use of IMSI-catchers in a standardized way in Latin America to further develop the detection methodology, technical tools, and mitigation strategies for the civil society actors and journalists in the region.

Increasing Impact Through Collaboration

The internet freedom landscape is an ever-evolving space in which authoritarians seeking to limit their populations’ access to information are constantly innovating and learning from one another in attempts to create new norms for digital control. Thus, the global internet freedom community must collectively and dynamically identify new threats and opportunities and respond quickly to changing circumstances. OTF bolsters this capability by supporting key community convenings.

With OTF support, Team CommUNITY organized both digital and in-person convenings focused on technical topics, specific communities of practice, and shared threats or needs. These efforts collectively facilitate trust, information sharing and technical collaboration, and result in a more cohesive response and bulwark against new digital threats.

Responding to Digital Emergencies

Throughout the reporting period, OTF responded to numerous digital emergencies. This included digital support to those on the frontlines of huge political and military events in Myanmar, Ukraine, Russia, and Iran.

Myanmar

In 2021, Myanmar’s military seized control of the government, imposing intense internet censorship and routine short-term internet shutdowns. To enhance freedom of expression and digital rights, OTF offered emergency digital support to civil society organizations, providing digital security audits, advice on device security practices, expanding secure communication infrastructure, and rebuilding web platforms to include modern security standards.

Ukraine
After the Russian invasion in February 2022, OTF rapidly responded to ensure Ukrainian civil society was prepared for potential digital attacks by launching dComm, a federated network of servers offering decentralized communication services and tools. These servers are designed to remain accessible should external connectivity be restricted or cut. Advanced threat and Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS) protection to key Ukrainian media and civil society organization websites complemented the communication services.

Russia

Following its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government amplified censorship efforts. As a result, the use of OTF-supported censorship-circumvention tools increased from a few thousand pre-invasion to nearly eight million users. OTF responded with surge funding for these tools and supported new circumvention deployment methodologies for Tor (an open-source software enabling anonymous communications) to ensure Russians could continue to access outside news and information despite increased restrictions and threats.

Iran

After the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, protests against Iran’s morality laws spread across the country, causing the government to shut down mobile networks and internet access. As a result, usage of OTF-supported circumvention tools rose from five million users per month to over 25 million. OTF provided rapid surge funding to these tools to support increased usage.

OTF is proud to be able to support the incredible work of so many committed defenders of a free and open internet, and we look forward to all we'll be able to accomplish in the coming years together.

The full OTF FY2021 Annual Report can be found here.

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