Google’s Parent Alphabet Launches Intra: To Protect Against DNS Manipulation

Jigsaw, one of Alphabet’s technology incubators, has released an app that protects internet users from DNS manipulation, a type of cyber attack used to block access to news sites, social media platforms and messaging apps.

As Alphabet, Google’s parent company, explains with the launch of Intra, DNS manipulation is one of the most common forms of online censorship, used to block access to news sites, information portals, social media platforms and communication apps. Intra is an Android app that protects against DNS manipulation, making it easy to access blocked websites and apps and get safer access to the internet.

In a post on Medium by 2 of Intra’s product and technical leads, Justin Henck and Ben Schwartz explain how “there are a variety of ways that repressive governments restrict access to information. They can shut down the internet or restrict publication of certain media outlets, try to overwhelm servers with bogus traffic, or prosecute journalists. But perhaps the least known — but widely used — form of censorship around the world is a set of techniques called DNS manipulation, where attackers manipulate the domain name system. DNS manipulation lets an attacker block certain websites, prevent people from accessing social media platforms and messaging apps, or redirect people to malicious websites that can download malware.”

By installing Intra, which runs on Android 4.0 and above, internet users will be protected from DNS manipulation.

“DNS manipulation is important to study for two reasons. First, it’s a frighteningly common technique used around the world. For example, a recent study by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) suggests that DNS manipulation is being used in Venezuela to block several independent media organizations, news sites, and social media applications. We are increasingly seeing this tactic being used around the world to suppress the news.

“Second, DNS manipulation is worth examining because it reveals a deeper flaw in the fundamental architecture of the internet. The Domain Name System is like the phone book of the internet: it’s how computers know what servers are connected to certain domains. But the connection between your computer and the Domain Name System is usually unencrypted, meaning people can intercept that traffic and manipulate it. Intra works by encrypting your connection to the Domain Name System, so no one can manipulate it or see what websites you’re trying to visit.

“DNS manipulation is such a widespread issue that the most recent version of Android (Android Pie) included DNS protection as a default feature for all new Android devices. But billions of people around the world use older versions of Android that lack this critical feature. Intra gives them the similar state-of-the-art protection.”

Henck and Schwartz write that the app will be especially beneficial to people living in “countries where DNS manipulation is a common censorship technique. Of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom House’s recent ‘Freedom on the Net’ report, nearly half have experienced a decline in overall freedom, meaning techniques like DNS manipulation are likely to increase in the near future.”

“In a perfect world, the Domain Name System would be encrypted by default for everyone, everywhere, and we’re working to make that happen. But in the meantime, everyone deserves access to a free and simple tool that makes this pervasive form of censorship obsolete.”