My latest for Wired:
Private messaging apps like SnapChat and WhatsApp aren’t as private as you might think.
SnapChat settled with the Federal Trade Commission earlier this month over a complaint that its privacy claims were misleading, as reported by USA Today, and last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation published a report listing the company as the least privacy-friendly tech outfit it reviewed, including Comcast, Facebook, and Google. Last year, WhatsApp faced privacy complaints from the Canadian and Dutch governments, and like Snapchat, its security has been an issue as well.
When you use messaging services like these, you’re depending on outside companies to properly encrypt your messages, store them safely, and protect them when the authorities come calling. And they may not be up to the task. The only way to ensure your messages are reasonably safe is to encrypt them yourself, using keys that no one has access to–including your messaging service provider. That way, even if hackers bust into your service provider or the authorities hit it with subpoenas, your messages are protected.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Encryption tools are notoriously hard to use. But several projects are working to change this, building a more polished breed of encryption software that can serve the everyday consumer. A new open source project called Briar is part of this crowd, but it puts a fresh twist on the idea. It doesn’t just encrypt your messages. It lets you jettison your messaging service provider altogether. Your messages travel straight to the person you’re sending them to, without passing through a central server of any sort. It’s what’s known as a “peer-to-peer” tool.
This has a few advantages. You and your contacts keep complete control your data, but you needn’t setup your own computer server in order to do so. Plus, you can send messages without even connecting to the internet. Using Briar, you can send messages over Bluetooth, a shared WiFi connection, or even a shared USB stick. That could be a big advantage for people in places where internet connections are unreliable, censored, or non-existent.
Briar is still in alpha and not ready for use for high-risk scenarios. If you’re looking for something immediately, OffTheRecord and TextSecure are worth considering, but of course nothing is perfectly secure.
My lastest for Wired:
The National Security Agency is scanning your email. Google and Facebook are hoarding your personal data. And online advertisers are selling your shopping habits to the highest bidder.
Today, more than ever, people are thinking about how to opt out of this madness without quitting the internet entirely. The obvious answer is to host your own web apps on your own computer server. And thanks to the burgeoning Indie Web Movement, there’s no shortage of open source alternatives to popular services like Google Calendar, Facebook’s photo albums, or Dropbox’s file sharing. The problem is that setting up and managing your own server is a pain in the neck–at least for the average consumer.
For open source developer Johannes Ernst, what the world really needs is a simple device that anyone can use to take their data back from the wilds of the internet. So he designed the Indie Box, a personal web server preloaded with open source software that lets you run your own web services from your home network–and run them with relative ease. Any system administrator will tell you that setting up a server is just the first step. Maintaining it is the other big problem. Indie Box seeks to simplify both, with an option to fully automate all updates and maintenance tasks, from operating system patches to routine database migrations.
I wrote about Ethereum, next generation cryptocurrencies and distributed autonomous corporations for Wired:
Most people think of bitcoin as a form of money, if they think of bitcoin at all. But 19-year-old hacker Vitalik Buterin sees it as something more — much more. He sees it as a new way of building just about any internet application.
The bitcoin digital currency is driven by open source software that runs across thousands of machines around the globe. Borrowing code from this rather clever piece of software, independent hackers have already built applications such as the Twitter-style social network Twister , the encrypted e-mail alternative Bitmessage , and the unseizable domain name system Namecoin . But Buterin believes that many other applications can benefit from the genius of the bitcoin software, and that’s why he’s joining forces with several other hackers to create something called Ethereum .
He envisions Ethereum as an online service that lets you build practically anything in the image of bitcoin and run it across a worldwide network of machines. At its core, bitcoin is a way of reliably storing and moving digital objects or pieces of information. Today, it stores and moves money, but Buterin believes the same basic system could give rise to a new breed of social networks, data storage systems and securities markets — all operated without the help of a central authority.
Becky Kazansky writes:
Through a mesh network first launched in November 2011 through a local nonprofit, residents after the storm were able to alert people to their needs over social media and check up on relatives. Access is limited and the network could, at the time, support only about 100-150 connections simultaneously. But in the wake of a disaster that created a new camaraderie in Manhattan around cellphone charging stations and free wifi, New Yorkers can appreciate that when the neighborhood goes dark, even a scrap of a link to the outside world is better than nothing.
My interview with The Doctor is here.
See also: Government-less internets
According to the Associated Press’ sources, Osama bin Laden routinely typed e-mails on an Internet-less computer in his compound, saved them to a USB thumbdrive and had a courier e-mail them from cybercafes in nearby towns. Apparently this went on for years, undetected. According to the AP, Navy SEALS found about 100 flash drives that apparently contain series of these e-mail communications.
This is what’s referred to as a sneakernet, and as Internet crackdowns occur all over the world, it may become an increasingly popular way for people to communication.
A couple years ago, in these very pages, Trevor Blake wrote:
Now is a good time to establish lines of electronic communication that are not entirely (if at all) reliant on the Internet as it currently exists. Hand delivery of a stack of media is still one of my favorites. At a certain point it the best bit-per-second value known, it has certain privacy features that can’t be beat and it requires very little technical know-how or fancy equipment or money. For all the gnostic freakout of The Matrix, the scene where a disreputable character knocks on Mr. Anderson’s door and passes him a data disc might be the most prophetic.
Learning about cryptography, fidonet and the postal system won’t do anyone any harm. Nothing beats trusted person-to-person connections established in many only-partially overlapping social / professional circles.
Contact is an unconference organized by Douglas Rushkoff on the subject of building new, government-less Internets. The event will be held in New York City on October 20 2011.
Here’s part of Rushkoff’s explanation of the event:
At the epicenter of CONTACT will be the Bazaar - a free-form marketplace of ideas, demos, haggling, and ad-hoc connections. If you have visited the Akihabara, Tokyo’s ultra-vibrant open-air electronics market, or the under-the-highway open-air jade market of Kowloon, or even the Burning Man festival, you understand the power of combining commerce, physical location, and serendipity. A decidedly unstructured counterpart to the convened meetings, solo provocations, and the MeetUpEverywheres, the Bazaar will bring p2p to life, encouraging introductions, brokering, deal-making, food-tasting, and propositions of every kind. It is where the social, business, political, and spiritual agendas merge into one big human agenda.
Contact will hope to revive the spirit of optimism and infinite possibility of the early cyber-era, folding the edges of this culture back to the middle. Social media has come to be understood as little more than a marketing opportunity. We see it as quite possibly the catalyst for the next stage of human evolution and, at the very least, a way to restore p2p value exchange and decentralized innovation to the realms of culture, commerce and government.
Content was never king. Contact is. Please join us, and find the others.
I did a follow-up to my story last week about wireless mesh network projects, adding four more projects to the original list of three.
Also, I’ll be on This Week in Cloud Computing tomorrow around 3:45 PST talking about wireless ad-hoc networks.
I wrote about three different projects that are working to create a government-less Internet over at ReadWriteWeb:
In Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel Little Brother, the protagonist starts an wireless ad-hoc network, called X-Net, in response to a government crack-down on civil liberties. The characters use gaming systems with mesh networking equipment built-in to share files, exchange message and make plans.
The Internet blackout in Egypt, which we’ve been covering, touches on an issue we’ve raised occasionally here: the control of governments (and corporations) over the Internet (and by extension, the cloud). One possible solution, discussed by geeks for years, is the creation of wireless ad-hoc networks like the one in Little Brother to eliminate the need for centralized hardware and network connectivity. It’s the sort of technology that’s valuable not just for insuring both freedom of speech (not to mention freedom of commerce - Egypt’s Internet blackout can’t be good for business), but could be valuable in emergencies such as natural disasters as well.
Here are a few projects working to create such networks.
I also wrote a piece on how some Egyptians are getting around the Internet crack down.
Installing the software takes barely a couple of minutes and requires minimal computer skills. You find the Freenet website, read a few terse instructions, and answer a few questions (“How much security do you need?” … “NORMAL: I live in a relatively free country” or “MAXIMUM: I intend to access information that could get me arrested, imprisoned, or worse”). Then you enter a previously hidden online world. In utilitarian type and bald capsule descriptions, an official Freenet index lists the hundreds of “freesites” available: “Iran News”, “Horny Kate”, “The Terrorist’s Handbook: A practical guide to explosives and other things of interests to terrorists”, “How To Spot A Pedophile [sic]”, “Freenet Warez Portal: The source for pirate copies of books, games, movies, music, software, TV series and more”, “Arson Around With Auntie: A how-to guide on arson attacks for animal rights activists”. There is material written in Russian, Spanish, Dutch, Polish and Italian. There is English-language material from America and Thailand, from Argentina and Japan. There are disconcerting blogs (“Welcome to my first Freenet site. I’m not here because of kiddie porn … [but] I might post some images of naked women”) and legally dubious political revelations. There is all the teeming life of the everyday internet, but rendered a little stranger and more intense. One of the Freenet bloggers sums up the difference: “If you’re reading this now, then you’re on the darkweb.”
(via Atom Jack)