While internet censorship in China has long been pervasive, the days leading up to and marking the Tiananmen Square protests mark a tradition of heightened censorship practices throughout the country. As the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests approached earlier this month, one China-based Redditor described a convenient, do-it-yourself circumvention tool built on a Raspberry Pi. This tool represents a development in the ongoing cat and mouse game between China’s internet censors and the users seeking convenient ways to burrow through it.
The use of virtual private networks (VPN) is a daily reality for users attempting to access blocked sites in China – ensuring an encrypted connection and a secure path to overseas servers. While there is no shortage of available VPNs to tunnel under the firewall, the process of finding, downloading and configuring a new VPN whenever on a new device or public computer can prove arduous. The set-up that Redditor JaiPasInternet describes allows users to connect automatically to a designated VPN across devices rather than the typical reconfiguration necessitated when switching between multiple platforms. Following the Redditor’s instructions, the single-board computer created to promote computer science education can be configured to help users circumvent China’s Great Firewall. The DIY circumvention strategy involves a Raspberry Pi which automatically connects to a virtual private network through the open-source software application OpenVPN. Configured to connect to the internet via ethernet, that connection is shared with a wireless dongle equipped with hostapd software running in the background. In this scenario, the Raspberry Pi is set up to work like a WiFi hotspot, just like you would encounter in an airport or coffeeshop – it can share that internet connection with other devices. The primary difference here is the point of action for connecting to the virtual private network. Instead of that connection being based off a laptop or iPad, connecting to a pre-designated VPN takes place on a portable computer the size of a credit card, which devices can tap into.
While the Raspberry Pi method described above may save time for users, it is by no means a silver bullet for skirting the firewall entirely. The single-board computer still requires a VPN to connect to, a circumvention technique which China censors have allegedly cracked down on in recent months. Reports released late last year indicate a crackdown on some of the commercial VPN services. The alleged fortification of the Firewall prompted major VPN companies operating inside the country to issue apologies and publish workarounds for users to access their accounts. However at least one major, U.S-based VPN company was unable to offer definitive solutions on helping all users skirt the problem, offering some suggestions and advising their customers to “become familiar with the modification process and experiment on your own.” Responding to allegations from the VPN companies, Fang Binxing, known as the “Father” of the Firewall denied any knowledge that of upgrades meant to stymie VPN services. However, he noted the three overseas VPN companies were unregistered, and therefore operating illegally within the country.