“The human factor is used by dictatorships many times more often than any technology”

Demhack 7 hackathon
Demhack 7 hackathon

Winners of this year’s DemHack internet freedom hackathon become three development teams: textgericht, vox-harbor and 418. ForkLog talked to them to find out what the essence of their projects is, how they will help free-thinking citizens of authoritarian states and why there is no need to be afraid that dictatorships also know how to use advanced technologies.

ForkLog: What is the essence of your project?

textgericht: Create an interactive interface for automatically checking texts for bias and manipulation of the reader. Use natural language processing techniques, neural networks, and chatbots to use context to identify emotional manipulation, logical errors, stigmatizing language, and other signs of bias.

vox-harbour: We index millions of messages and posts on Telegram to detect manipulation of public opinion. Our service analyzes all messages from the user in public chats (ideally, all). This way we identify bots that fabricate artificial opinions. We also analyze reactions to posts and automatically look for cheats.

418: We are implementing the task set by OVD-Info. We are working on a VPN that is as simple as possible to deploy on a server and install and configure on client devices. It has the ability to “smart” routing, that is, simultaneous access to .RU segment resources directly from the client device and unblocked resources, as well as through a proxy for blocked resources.

ForkLog: Tell us about the technical side of the implementation.

textgericht: We have created a collection of prompts for ChatGPT3.5-turbo, which are processed through the OpenAI API. We receive the input text either through a web interface implemented in Flask, or through a Telegram bot. Plus, there is a simple SQL database, into which texts and metadata of messages from Telegram channels, previously collected using tchan and newspaper3k, were recorded.

vox-harbour: We have written a service in which many Telegram bots are distributed across chats and channels. They collect all the necessary information and upload message indexes to our database (ClickHouse). Next, if we want to check a specific user, we take a sample of his messages and additional characteristics (in which channels he writes, how often, with what frequency, etc.). We give this cast as input to the fine-tuned ChatGPT3.5-turbo model, which makes the final verdict. We look for the cheating of reactions by analyzing the double derivative of the outlier graph.

418: The technical implementation is a 3X-UI server based on xray-core, which supports the most current proxy protocols at the moment. In the original design, user interaction with the server is implemented using a web interface; distribution of configurations to users falls on the server administrator. We studied the 3X-UI API and implemented a Telegram bot that accesses the API and can create or delete users (administrator functionality) and, upon user request, send him a configuration (link) to connect to the proxy (user functionality). In addition to this, we corrected some features of the original version (unsecured HTTP access to the default web panel), prepared a script for deploying 3X-UI and the bot using one command, and prepared documentation for setting up custom proxy clients.

ForkLog: Will you develop the project?

vox-harbour: Yes!

418: Yes, we plan to bring the project to its original plan. Not everything planned was realized within the framework of the hackathon.

textgericht: Yes, we have already drawn up a plan for further actions and contacted several teams that are helping us in development.

418: We see a niche for our development – non-profit organizations and civil initiatives that need a VPN for their teams working in countries with high levels of government censorship and restrictions on civil liberties, such as Russia. Criteria for such a VPN:

  • high resistance to blocking (that is, obfuscation/masking of traffic must be implemented);
  • ease of control;
  • ease of use;
  • low cost.

Now only Outline is closest to these requirements, with the exception of the first and main one – resistance to blocking. We want to popularize a solution based on the most modern VPN protocols with obfuscation and traffic masking, such as XRay. To do this, we need to simplify the technical barriers to using this solution. This is precisely the goal of our development.

We hope that if we achieve it, we will be able to offer our development to non-profit organizations and civic initiatives. We want to encourage the technical community to develop XRay and create simple boxed client applications for the family of protocols that support it.

ForkLog: Are there any plans to introduce your development into mass use?

vox-harbour: Yes!

textgericht: Yes, we plan to work with media and educational projects.

ForkLog: Are any of the already working projects interested in integration?

textgericht: At the moment we are in touch with four organizations that want to try the project in their work.

vox-harbour: The SOTA publication used a preview of our service to demonstrate vote cheating in the vote to support the annexation of Ukrainian territories. Overall, we hope that our service will be useful to both independent media and ordinary users.

418: OVD-Info is interested in using this solution, as well as several friendly initiatives.

ForkLog: How and what technologies, in your opinion, can contribute to the democratization of society in Russia and the world right now?

textgericht: Tools for creating online communities and recommending materials to help combat disunity and the information bubble effect.

vox-harbour: Web3. And, probably, cryptography in general as a direction.

418: These are primarily technologies of collective action and related technologies that help people work together. VPN is certainly one of them. It allows people in Russia to not only continue to receive information, but also to do things together using tools that are not available without bypass tools.

One of the most striking examples of technology for collective action is Woodpecker. This is a service that helps people send complaints to certain authorities, such as in the recent campaign to save Igor Baryshnikov. Developments like these make it possible to unite civil society to work towards a common goal.

ForkLog: Do you feel disappointed that once breakthrough ideas like blockchain ended up become a powerful tool for authoritarian regimes? How do you think this could have been avoided?

textgericht: The arms race is the inevitable price of progress. Legislation is a good idea, but not in countries where laws serve the interests of a minority. And yet, the human factor is used by dictatorships many times more often than any technology.

One way to fight is to train activists so that people can freely use the tools in their own projects, competing with government-sponsored teams. However, developments are often limited by a lack of funding and, accordingly, computing power. It helps here: 1) participation in international incubators like AI for Social Good; 2) promoting alternative, democratic, use of technology to activate the crowdfunding capabilities of communities; 3) connection with volunteer experts in academia and industry.

vox-harbour: Alexander the Great’s army had extremely long spears, which were a breakthrough innovation for their time. But even if their spears were three times longer, the Macedonian Empire would have collapsed in the same way – not for technical, but for political reasons. So there is no disappointment, blockchain will not help dictators.

418: The use of blockchain technologies by dictatorships should not scare anyone, because, among other things, they equate the state with an ordinary person. For a long time, the anonymization of finances was available only to special services, officials and oligarchs, and the blockchain gave this opportunity to everyone who was ready to understand the issue. Any regulation or restriction of this industry will primarily hit those who want to escape dictatorships, not the dictatorships themselves. The authorities will always find a corrupt way to circumvent the prohibitions, and this will again become inaccessible to people.

ForkLog: What developments are you following most closely today and would you like to participate in their creation?

textgericht: We follow the cool teams AskRobot and vox-harbor, the research group of Preslav Nakov and the Greenhouses of Social Technologies projects.

vox-harbour: vox-harbour.

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