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Researchers develop a way to send secret messages through video games

Team Fusion competing against Team Dignitas during a broadcasted League of Legends tournament event to enter the North American LCS league, at Riot Games studio on April 26, 2015 in Los Angeles. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Team Fusion competing against Team Dignitas during a broadcasted League of Legends tournament event to enter the North American LCS league, at Riot Games studio on April 26, 2015 in Los Angeles. League of Legends, as well as other real-time strategy games of its kind, are extremely popular in countries with strict censorship laws, such as China and South Korea. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Researchers at Stony Brook University are finding that video games may be more than just a form of entertainment.

A team of four has been working on the prototype for Castle, a software that uses popular, real-time strategy games, like StarCraft, to send secret messages to players in countries with strict censorship laws.

“Over the past few years people have been struggling to find a way to get around censorship,” Rishab Nithyanand, a computer science Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University and member of the Castle research team, said. “So the research community has spent a lot of time figuring out good ways to circumvent these censorships that governments have imposed.”

The countries with the government censorship Nithyanand refers to include China, Iran and Syria.

To put it in perspective, China, “has the most rigid censorship program in the world,” and the government there is known to heavily monitor and filter searches, block websites and remove content that has to do with events like Taiwan independence or the Tiananmen Square massacre, according to USA Today.

Through prototypes and tools like Castle, researchers are finding ways to break through this censorship and give people the information they desire.

“There are billions of people who are living in places where their access to information is limited by censors,” Rob Johnson, one of the assistant professors at Stony Brook who helps with Castle research, said. “So the whole point of this project and projects like this is develop tools to help more people in the world to get access to information.”

The researchers got the idea for this project from talking in a meeting one day, according to Nithyanand.

“This research was also kind of a natural outgrowth of previous research we’ve done on a problem called website fingerprinting, which is when a third party can interpret your network connection and infer what websites you are visiting,” Johnson said.

He added that website fingerprinting is “potentially related in a high level to censorship circumvention, because you are trying to hide what you are doing and a third party is trying to observe something that you’re doing that they don’t want you to do.”

When it comes to hiding the censored material, Nithyanand puts it simply: “One of the ways that people have found fairly promising is to make your censor traffic look like something very benign, for instance like a Skype call, or a Google Hangouts or in our case video games.”

The secret messaging is disguised as video game commands. A person behind a firewall might ask another video game user who is not behind a firewall for a website or information through video game commands, according to Johnson.

The person not behind the firewall then has to interpret the commands, find what the information or website the other user is looking for, and then code the material back to the user through video game moves.

While this encoding seems complex, Bridger Hahn, another Castle researcher, said he has found a way to make encrypting the messages easier.

“If you are sending a file, you type the name of the file and then it sends,” Hahn said. “It takes over your computer and sends these moves really quickly, and when it’s done, it goes back to the command-line interface and tells you it’s done.”

In other words, the software will encode the messages for you and will send the messages as moves.

“Bridger did something really cool,” Johnson said. “He made it really easy to use and a lot easier than people expect.”

The researchers chose video games because they feel the traffic it generates is useful, game sessions are long so they don’t draw attention from censors and there are many video games to chose from in both the United States and places of high censorship.

“Video games are fairly popular even in the countries that are being blocked,” Nithyanand said. “China is one of the biggest markets for video games in the world, and it is also one of the heaviest censored countries.”

Castle prides itself on the idea of quickly changing from one video game to another to continue to share information.

“One of the primary goals of this research is to show that we can build a system that could be quickly and easily adaptive to video games,” Johnson said. “So that if the censor attempts to fight back by blocking one of these video games that we are using, then we will be able to respond even more quickly by switching to another video game.”

While the Castle team members say that this software is secure, they added that it is still just a prototype.

“It’s kind of like asking if a product in development will be successful,” Hahn said.

But he adds that one of the best things about the product being out there being out there is that now they can see if people can find a way to break it.

“It’s going to sound strange, but I am looking forward to someone breaking it,” Hahn said. “I want to see someone find an attack that beats it. We are claiming it’s secure, and I want to see some cool technique to break it down.”

Having working software is a goal of this research, but one of the best outcomes described by several of the Castle researchers is for it to be picked up and used as a tool by Tor.

Tor is a nonprofit organization that stops governments from being able to track your location and browsing history, according to The Guardian.

“Having something that is integrated with Tor means that the millions of people get access to it,” Nithyanand said. “That would be the best thing we can hope to get from it.”

Johnson added that Nithyanand is right about that, but says there is still more this prototype offers.

“Another good outcome for this research is for people to start exploring other ways to start developing protocols that have this feature where you can jump to another system whenever the censor attacks your tool,” Johnson said. “Even if video games don’t end up being the final story, if someone takes this idea that would be great too.”

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