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Friday, July 17, 2020

Encryption software for dissidents could be collateral damage of budget fight


The U.S. Open Technology Fund, a digital rights nonprofit financed by the U.S. government, is poised to cancel a contract for encryption software that helps people living in repressive regimes access impartial news without their government’s knowledge, according to a U.S. government official with direct knowledge of the matter.

OTF pays around $2 million to software developer Psiphon each year, making it the most expensive encryption software the group funds.

Psiphon, based in Canada, makes internet circumvention software tools that many audiences around the world depend on to access U.S. taxpayer-funded news content without their government knowing they’re accessing it.

One audience that is especially dependent on Psiphon’s software is Iran, where people consume Voice of America and Radio Farda, the Persian-language arm of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Some 80 percent of VOA’s Iranian audience accesses it using the tool, as does 20 percent of their China audience.

OTF is financed by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, a taxpayer-funded media group now headed up by Michael Pack, a Steve Bannon ally.

Once he was installed last month, Pack fired OTF’s senior officials and its board, an action that is now being litigated through the courts, although a judge ruled earlier this month that Pack had the power to do that. Pack selected former South Carolina secretary of state James Miles to lead OTF in an acting capacity; the official announcement didn’t list any technological expertise for Miles, although Pack cited Miles’ experience in other areas.

USAGM is holding around $20 million in funds that were allocated for OTF by Congress. With money running short, the fund is contractually obligated to inform Psiphon 45 days before a termination of its arrangement.

Asked for comment, a USAGM spokesperson said: “No decision to that effect has been made. Both USAGM CEO Michael Pack and OTF Acting CEO James M. Miles are great proponents of internet firewall circumvention. They have every intention of ensuring that these important projects continue to be funded.” Psiphon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some of OTF’s money every year goes to support other tools, such as the encrypted messaging app Signal, that help people around the world communicate securely. OTF’s Rapid Response fund has been used to help protesters in Hong Kong fend off digital attacks and surveillance, for instance.

One USAGM official called the potential ending of the Psiphon contract a “tremendous loss to the country” because 23 percent of Iranian adults access news funded by USAGM every week.

“We’re going to potentially lose access to one of our most critical audiences at a time when the dialogue between our two countries is so important,” said the official.

“Every time President Trump gives a speech to Iran, that’s what we’re broadcasting,” the official added.



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