Privacy and P2P

Privacy and P2P

Article from Issue 163/2014

As I have mentioned in the past, I continue to find it amazing that the high-tech world can go through the ritual of condemning privacy violations and NSA-style government spying, and at the same time celebrate life in the consumer-cloud paradise, where all data resides on a server controlled by a corporation and privacy is mined continuously as part of the basic business model.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

As I have mentioned in the past, I continue to find it amazing that the high-tech world can go through the ritual of condemning privacy violations and NSA-style government spying, and at the same time celebrate life in the consumer-cloud paradise, where all data resides on a server controlled by a corporation and privacy is mined continuously as part of the basic business model.

A chorus of corporate titans have expressed outrage that they should have to share information with the government that would otherwise be available only to their ad partners. Without a doubt, they are correct that the government shouldn't have this information, but don't kid yourself: If the data exists on a server, and the government wants it, they'll get it.

Back in 2012, long before the NSA story broke, Free Software Foundation attorney Eben Moglen shocked an unsuspecting Betabeat reporter when he stated, "We have an enormous ecological disaster created by badly-designed social media now being used by people to control and exploit human beings in all sorts of ways. That's the consequence of social media structures which encourage people to share using centralized databases, and everything they share is held by someone who is no friend of theirs who also runs the servers and collects the logs which contain all the information about who accesses what, the consequences of which is that we are creating systems of comprehensive surveillance in which a billion people are involved and those people's lives are being lived under a kind of scrutiny which no secret police service in the 20th century could ever have aspired to achieve." [1]

Sounds pretty grim; but seriously, are there actually any alternatives? The whole world is certainly not going to wake up tomorrow and give up social networking. But really, Moglen doesn't condemn all social networking, just social networking that depends on "centralized databases."

Decentralized social networking tools that don't rely on a central server actually exist right now. You might not be able to use one of these tools to reach out and locate a random kid from your fifth grade class, but if you want to set up a focus group to discuss a specific topic, or if you want to post pictures and information for family and friends, they are perfectly fine. The Diaspora project [2], which was originally inspired by a Moglen speech, is a popular decentralized social networking option. Other projects provide a complete underlying framework for peer-to-peer social networking, such as GNUnet [3] or the Bitcoin-like Bitmessage [4] protocol.

For these tools to catch on at a global, Facebook-like scale, they will need more support than Eben Moglen or I can give them. How does a thing like decentralized social networking actually get enough momentum to make an impact?

Somewhere out there in a parallel universe (which, admittedly, might be very different from our universe) a solution is already underway. The sugar daddy that could make decentralized social networking happen on a massive scale is the PC hardware industry. PCs sales are plummeting, and the PC industry is losing relevance around the world. Companies like Dell and HP are flocking to embrace the "future" of the cloud, even though the server-based cloud paradigm strongly devalues full-featured computers in favor of minimum-resource gadgets like tablets and smartphones.

A truly enlightened PC industry that wanted to save itself would be out there right now trying to figure out some things a PC can do better than an iPad, and acting as a part-time server in a decentralized social network is certainly one of those things. It wouldn't even cost that much for the PC industry to take a stand. All they really have to do is just put an icon for a decentralized social media tool on the default desktop that shows up when the system boots for the first time.

Including an icon for a privacy-respecting, peer-to-peer social network is a simple and inexpensive way that PC vendors could fight back to stay relevant. Decentralization was the whole reason for the rise of the PC industry in the first place, and in trying times, it always helps to remember the reason for one's existence. I hope our universe is the universe where the PC vendors figure out they have a role to play in maintaining our privacy by supporting decentralized, peer-to-peer communication.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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