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Fighting surveillance through decentralised networks that rely on encryption by default

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd August 2013


Hal Hodson describes Hyperboria:

“After the extent of the NSA’s clandestine PRISM program was revealed, privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation urged users to start using relatively simple email encryption programs like Pretty Good Privacy and GNU Privacy Guard. But even those can be daunting to set up. A better idea would be a decentralised network that relies on encryption by default.

This is the case with Hyperboria, the virtual layer that underpins meshnet efforts in the US. Hyperboria is a virtual meshnet because it runs through the existing internet, but is purely peer-to-peer. This means people who use it exchange information with others directly over a completely encrypted connection, with nothing readable by any centralised servers.

When physical meshnet nodes like those in Maryland and Seattle are set up, existing Hyperboria connections can simply be routed through them. At the moment, Hyperboria offers a blogging platform, email services, and even forums similar to reddit.

Encryption is the starting point. Computer researcher Caleb James DeLisle wrote software called cjdns which allows the Seattle Meshnet nodes to use Hyperboria and keep all communications between them encrypted. Instead of letting other computers connect to you through a shared IP address which anyone can use, cjdns only lets computers talk to one other after they have verified each other cryptographically. That means there is no way anyone can be intercepting your traffic.

The Seattle Meshnet has just completed a successful crowdfunding campaign for meshboxes – routers that come preloaded with the cjdns software needed to join Hyperboria. Users will just plug the routers into their existing internet connection and be ready to go on the virtual meshnet – or a local physical meshnet when one becomes available.

Some form of encryption is already in use across much of the internet, but to be useful it has to be ubiquitous. Web services like Gmail, for example, let you log in using an encrypted connection. But when you send an email it leaves Google’s encrypted garden and hits the open web in clear text for anyone to read. With Hyperboria’s peer-to-peer connections, every single link in the chain of communication is fully encrypted. Intermediaries that handle traffic cannot even see what kind of traffic it is, let alone read any email. Use the purpose-built hyperboria.name email service, and your communication becomes untraceable.

Instead of a few established players building network infrastructure, DeLisle wants anyone to be able to do it. For him, decentralised internet access in the hands of the people is just a start. The services they use must be decentralised, too. “If people continue to use Facebook, they will continue to be spied on, that’s just the reality of the world.”

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