I've been meaning to write this post for a long time, but like many of you I've been wasting far too much time on Facebook. Facebook has been dutifully logging all of my posts, photos, personal messages etc. They mine my personal data and display ads for ham radio and electronic parts companies, Linux web hosting companies, Wordpress training and even the occasional ad for a social justice organization. Facebook's data mining software knows me as a somewhat geeky lefty. Not bad.
Over the last year plenty of things both good and bad have taken place using the power of both social networks and mobile devices. We've seen millions in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Athens, Madrid and now even Tel Aviv demanding social and economic justice.
We've also seen the results of unfocused rage on the streets of major cities across the U.K.
With the latest utterances of British Prime Minister David Cameron, the snooping measures contained in Harper's anti-crime bill, along with proposed legislation before the U.S. Congress, one simple truth is unfolding. Governments are going to be spying on your electronic communications.
At the beginning of the year it was the tyrannical regimes in places like Tunisia and Egypt that engaged in blocking electronic communications. Now, we have the supposedly "western democratic" government of the United Kingdom talking about blocking social networking sites whenever a "riot" (however they define it) happens to be taking place somewhere in the country.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government wants your Internet service provider to act as a privatized spy agency on behalf of the government, maintaining detailed logs of everything you do online.
The question is, what can we do about this?
One very important project that will help is a thing called the "Freedom Box". The Freedom Box is the brainchild of Eben Moglen, a law professor from New York's Columbia University and founder of the Software Freedom Law Centre.
The idea behind the Freedom Box is to build small, privacy-aware "web servers" about the size of a common AC power adapter that can sell for about $30 U.S. These small web servers will have USB and micro SD card slots so that you can encrypt and store your personal data. They'll have built-in Ethernet ports, along with Wi-Fi and wireless mesh networking capability so that if the secret police in your country shut down Internet connections, you can build ad hoc local networks to let your neighbours know what's going on.
They'll have "Tor" server capability so that you can surf the web anonymously if you happen to live behind the "Great Firewall of China" (or Iran). You'll be able to automatically encrypt your email too.
If the secret police are about to knock on your door, you can stick your Freedom Box in your pocket, take off and set it up on the other side of town. If you live in a country that still has some degree of civil liberties, police will require a search warrant to access your Freedom Box. It won't be as easy as calling up your friendly neighbourhood Internet service provider or searching the logs of some corporate-owned social networking service.
The Freedom Box is being designed from the ground up as a device to be used by political dissidents in repressive societies or any other circumstance where you might want to communicate privately.
How is this all possible?
First of all, over the last decade or so computer hardware has become much smaller and more powerful. The simple "ARM" processors that act as the brain of your smartphone or common household Wi-Fi router can be used to power small web servers.
In the organization I work for, our first web server computer ran on a 66 Megahertz Intel 486 processor with just 128 Megabytes of RAM back in the 1990s. Today's ARM processors are much smaller, much more energy efficient and much more powerful.
The software that the Freedom Box will run on has been freely available for well over a decade. All computers require an operating system. The Freedom Box will run on the Debian GNU/Linux system, the most community-driven and most reliable of the hundreds of GNU/Linux versions available.
Add to that, the free software Apache Web Server, MySQL database and PHP programming language and you have all of the software elements you need for a web server. None of this requires any great degree of computing power.
All that you have to do is to make the software very easy for non-technical users to use. Once that's done the end user can setup and configure their Freedom Box in a few minutes, plug it in and then forget about it.
Professor Moglen sums it all up. "Make software that supports freedom. Put that software in everything. Turn freedom on!"
The Freedom Box Foundation was setup earlier this year as a non-profit organization to oversee software development. A fundraising effort on Kickstarter.com raised $86,000 within 30 days. (Full disclosure -- yours truly donated).
Much work has been done, and much remains to be done. If you have software development skills, particularly in user interface design, the project could use your help!
Will the Freedom Box absolutely guarantee your privacy? No, because nothing is perfect. But, the Freedom Box will will help make your communications spy resistant. If a government or corporation wants to snoop on you they'll have to seriously work at it.
The centralized corporate social networks will not be tools for social change over the long run. First and foremost, they are data-mining businesses. It's important that we always remember that. We need to decentralize the network and put it back into the hands of the people. This can be done one Freedom Box at a time.
To learn more about the Freedom Box please take about 15 minutes of your time to watch this abridged video of a presentation that Eben Moglen made at the "Open World Forum" last year.