Need to beat online censorship, but don’t have access to a VPN? Lantern, an open-source app that uses peer-to-peer connections to get around firewalls, may be for you.
Lantern was launched by Adam Fisk, the man behind the now-defunct LimeWire file-sharing platform. Fisk said he first conceived of the idea for Lantern when working on LimeWire as a way to circumvent censorship in countries like China.
“At LimeWire in the really early days, censorship was starting to become an issue in places like China,” Fisk said, “and it became clear to me even back then that this peer-to-peer approach could be an effective way to tackle that.”
A traditional VPN or Web proxy service works around firewalls by routing Internet traffic to a third-party server located in a country that is not subject to censorship rules.
Lantern works differently. It creates a peer-to-peer network of proxies. By running the Lantern app, people with uncensored Internet connections provide nodes through which their peers in censored countries can reach blocked sites.
This characteristic gives Lantern some advantages over VPNs and centralized Web proxies. One is that it doesn’t cost anything, unlike some secure VPN services. Another is that, because Lantern creates a peer-to-peer, mesh-style network with no central authority, users’ traffic logs are not passing through a central server or being logged in a central location.
A downside, perhaps, is that Lantern only encrypts traffic when a user tries to visit a site that would otherwise be blocked in his or her country. If the site is not censored, Lantern leaves the traffic unencrypted. (The traffic could still be encrypted in another way, of course, like through an SSL certificate hosted on the site itself.) That means eavesdroppers can’t read a user’s data with blocked sites, but there is no such guarantee with other ones.
In addition, even when Lantern encrypts traffic going to blocked sites, it doesn’t hide the fact that a user is accessing such sites. According to the Lantern website, “Lantern users acting as access points can see the website you’re accessing and where you’re accessing it from, but the actual content you are reading from or posting to that site is not visible to them.”
Lantern is free to download and use. It’s also open-source, a fact that its developers tout as evidence that it is secure and trustworthy: “Anyone can check our source code and see how everything works and make an informed decision. We welcome experts to audit our system,” the tool’s website says.