Each time you send an email or make a website request, your digital command gets broken into packets that travel through a series of routers enroute to its destination. If you're sending your request far enough, it also runs the risk of passing through countries where data censorship could modify your data without you even knowing it.
But a new system wants to let internet users route their data around specific countries they want to avoid, and see where their data is travelling.
"With recent events, such as censorship of Internet traffic, suspicious 'boomerang routing' where data leaves a region only to come back again, and monitoring of users' data, we became increasingly interested in this notion of empowering users to have more control over what happens with their data," said Dave Levin, project lead and an assistant research scientist in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) in a press statement.
IEEE Spectrum reports that Alibi Routing is a peer-to-peer system that allows internet users to control the path that their data travels online by relying on a network of peers or "alibis." These, write the researchers in their paper they presented last week, are "relays with particular timing constraints that, when upheld, would make it impossible to traverse both the relay and the forbidden regions."
In their paper, the researchers describe simulating a network with 20,000 people acting as peers. Their tests found that the system was capable of locating an alibi more than 85 percent of the time. They aim to release their routing system for user testing in the form of a plug-in by the end of 2015.
"The goal of provable avoidance routing is detection, as opposed to prevention," they write in their conference paper. "What we are able to provide is assurance that the user's packets and their respective responses took paths that did not traverse regions of the world."
In theory, deploying it would be simple as the user doesn't need to switch their hardware, or use a public key infrastructure (a set of hardware and software managing public key encryption)—it only needs the internet user to use the researchers plug-in.
The system requires the users to specify their destination and which "forbidden" geographic locations they want to avoid. If the user's request is successful, the researchers assert they'll "return proof that the user's packets did not traverse forbidden regions." The system also relies on strength in numbers as it's more effective when the more people from different geographical areas participate, and act as peers.
While the system hands over more control to internet users, the researchers are quick to state that it's definitely not a "panacea."
"It is impossible for users to avoid the countries they are in—the very problem traditional censorship-resistant systems address," they write in their paper. "Our goal is not to replace such systems, but to complement them."