I just realized how easy it is to cut off one of Google’s tentacles throughout the web. This is a WordPress blog and I used the Ultimate Google Analytics plugin to keep track of the number of visitors, where they come from (referer, not geo-location), keywords and so forth.
Google Analytics is just one of the many tentacles, Google spreads throughout the web. There is the Google Fonts API, there is Google Hosted Libraries and probably numerous other things that I am not aware of. Visitors to websites that include any one of these Google services will always contact one or multiple Google servers, thus identifying themselves (to some degree).
So I uninstalled the Google Analytics plugin, deleted my Google Analytics account and installed the WordPress Statistics plugin instead. It works flawlessly so far. I can recommend it.
Mere users of the web can monitor and block these tentacles as they browse the web through a Firefox add-on called Disconnect. I can recommend this plugin as well.
Let’s work together to make the web a less centralized, more private place for everyone. Let’s try to exclude large corporations from our interactions between each other. It is probably none of their business and certainly should not be their business.
I just discovered scikit-image – an image processing toolbox for the python programming language. The project appears to be very active and under heavy development. I have been looking for a while for ways to replace my scripts that rely on the Matlaband this seems to do the trick. I’m especially excited about the libraries functionality to measure region properties. This will come in very handy. I have either been sleeping under a stone or this project is not very well known. Let’s change that. Go check out scikit-image!
It looks like Nvidia is slowly but steadily abandoning OpenCL – their OpenCL examples are not included in the 5.0 SDK anymore and the links on their OpenCL webpage are dead. It is not clear if this is an oversight or intentional. With the recent introduction of the Intel Xeon Phi, an accelerator that supports OpenCL, this could be a strategic move on Nvidia’s part.
I’ve created a github repository that contains all Nvidia OpenCL examples from CUDA version 4.2.9. Please note that it currently contains only the Linux examples. Feel free to fork and add the Windows and Mac OS examples.
I like my e-mails to look a particular way. I send plain-text only e-mails with line wrapping at about 80 characters. This way I feel I can control to some degree what the e-mail will look like at the receivers end. And I want my e-mails to look like that even when I’m quoting someone.
Up until now I hated to use Thunderbird because it did not allow me to send e-mails like that. Since gmail looks ugly as hell now I came back to Thunderbird and set out to solve this issue once and for all. I searched for “thunderbird plain text wrap” and whatnot. A smart fellow on a forum had the answer:
There are two hidden preference settings which one can access through Edit > Preference > Advanced > General > Config Editor button:
mailnews.display.disable_format_flowed_support must be set to true to avoid rewarpping of messages received for which the sender allows flowed formatting
mailnews.send_plaintext_flowed must be set to “false” to avoid sending flowed format e-mails
The problem seems to be something called “flowed format” but I’m too ignorant to go into the details of what it does, what it means and why I would want it. I’m just happy the e-mails my Thunderbird sends look the way I want them to look. Finally. Thank you rsx11m!
“The multiple human needs and desires that demand privacy among two or more people in the midst of social life must inevitably lead to cryptology wherever men thrive and wherever they write.” wrote David Kahn in his book “The Codebreakers”, chronicling the history of cryptography. The book was published in 1967. Almost 45 years later cryptography is seldom used to protect our privacy.
The information age spawned databases and networks capable of extracting and storing large amounts of private data. Those databases are often unknown to us and if we know of their existence we can not control them. They store personal information, communication and financial transactions. This gathering of private data happens against our will if we believe surveys that show that we actually do care about privacy. Skeptics and experts caution us but the majority of web users is forced to give in to the subtle but grave disintegration of privacy, pushed forward by industry and government. They are growing their databases steadily, expanding the records they keep on all of us.
We can see the consequences of these uncontrollable, central databases today. In what is believed to be one of the largest data security breaches in history, attackers stole personally identifiable information of 77 million PlayStation Network users earlier this year.
Accidental exposure of personal data is another problem. It is very difficult to control who has access to which piece of information. People get fired for how they behave online because they confuse personal with public communication. The web does not forget. And ever since the uprisings in the Arab world it should be clear to everybody that what one posts online can have severe consequences, including imprisonment and torture.
There are a variety of interesting judicial and ethical approaches to cope with these issues. And there is cryptography – a technological means of preserving privacy. Cryptography enables anonymity, the concept of ‘publishing information while ones identity is publicly unknown’ as well as privacy, the ability to to ‘seclude oneself or information about oneself and reveal oneself selectively’.
But almost nobody uses cryptography. Asked if he encrypts his e-mail, Bruce Schneier, cryptographer and highly regarded computer security specialist answers “I do not, except for special circumstances”. He further argues that for more people to encrypt their communication, services like Gmail would have to do it by default. This will of course never happen, since those services draw their revenue from reading our messages.
It has to work out of the box
But the more important point Schneier makes is this: what has to happen to spread the use of cryptology? It has to work out of the box. No additional application should be required, no plug-in, no add-on and certainly no driver installation. There exists a concept that could potentially offer a transparent solution for everyone: browser based cryptography.
The idea of browser based cryptography is simple: before users upload their personal data to application hosts they encrypt the data in the browser. The host only receives encrypted blobs of data and since users don’t share their key with the host the data is secure. If they decide to share their data with someone else they can provide them with means of decrypting the blobs. Users are in control at all times.
There are a number of alternatives and especially the concept of storing encrypted data with a curious or even untrusted host is not new. Traditionally, host applications have been used to handle cryptographic operations. These tools must be installed and have to be properly set up by the user. Mobile platforms might be an ideal environment for these alternatives. Installing applications is hassle-free and very common on mobile devices. Due to the well defined platform, developers can keep user effort to configure these applications to a minimum.
A colleague and I devised the idea of a cryptography enabled http proxy that is similar to the Cipherbox. The proxy is a trusted instance possibly hosted locally or connected via a VPN. All http traffic is sent through the proxy. It analyzes the traffic and encrypts and encrypts relevant parts like messages or images depending on its configuration. We implemented a prototype that is capable of transparently encrypting and decrypting Facebook messages using gpg. A proxy like this could run on a user’s FreedomBox and can in theory be extended to provide crypto-functionality for various platforms including for example Gmail.
A special form of cryptography called homomorphic encryption could enable users to take advantage of both cryptography and computing as a service at the same time. If encrypted data is sent to hosts, they usually can not process the data. If instead a homomorphic encryption scheme is in place, for certain algebraic functions on the plaintext, equivalent functions exist that can be applied to the ciphertext. Proponents of this technology argue that it could enable widespread use of cloud computing by ensuring the confidentiality of private data.
Controlling ones personal data is more difficult with every new database and network based innovation. At the same time privacy is more important than ever in a world that prepares to conglomerate health records, gathers and centralizes consumer behavior data and merges individual financial records into powerful profiles. Cryptography is an effective safeguard we must implement to prevent exploitation and discrimination based on our personal information. Every user must be enabled to use cryptology to control the data he wishes to share.
Browsers vendors must implement the building blocks required for cryptography including a secure key store that can be managed by the user. They should also include means of validating a running application against a checksum. Cryptographers and web developers must work together to implement correct and easy to use de- and encryption functionality for browser based applications.
More people must start thinking about this problem, more ideas are needed and should be carefully vetted by cryptographers and security experts. User interface specialists should work on making cryptography a transparent process. We need to get everyone involved and try to revert the damage that has already been done.
Over the years computers grew in numbers and a logical step in their evolution was to connect them together to allow their users to share things. Little networks grew into huge networks and some computers gained more power than the rest: they called themselves “servers”. Today millions of people are connected online at the mercy of middleman who control the servers of the world.
This is not an introduction to an dystopian fantasy world but an excerpt from a promotion video for Opera Unite, a framework that allows users to host information from their home computer. It was a bold attempt to change the centralized architecture of the Internet. A number of smartpeople have been pondering this idea even before Opera’s experiment failed miserably.
And the concept of a decentralized web is gaining traction: more and more people realize something has to change. The cause for this trend is obvious: the number of data security and privacy disasters that were made public has spiked in recent times . In April ’11 for example an update to the security terms of service of the widely used Dropbox tool revealed that contrary to previous claims, Dropbox Inc. has full access to user data.
With more and more of our personal data moving to centralized servers or “cloud services” – a term that should be used as an euphemism – we’re no longer in control. But there is hope in sight: there are dozens of projects out there that try to stop the trend of centralization and data consolidation.
The most popular of the lot is probably Diaspora. The project got a lot of attention in April 2010 when they managed to raise about $200.000 from almost 6500 supporters. The software looks and feels very much like Facebook or Google+. The innovation is that users are allowed and even encouraged to set up their own Diaspora node. This essentially means allowing users to set up their own Facebook server at home (or wherever they want). The Diaspora nodes are able to interact with each other to form one distributed social network. Furthermore, instead of users having to log in to one central server, they may choose one of many servers administered by different entities. In the end they can decide whom to trust with their data and there is no one entity that has access to all the data.
A social network project that is also worth mentioning follows the same principle. Its name is Buddycloud. The main difference between Buddycloud and Diaspora can be found in their implementation details: Buddycloud builds upon XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), a more than 10 year old and often implemented specification for “near-real-time, extensible instant messaging, presence information, and contact list maintenance”. There are many unknowns in this area so building on such proven protocols instead of defining new standards might proof to be an advantage. But there are many more social networking projects out there. Wikipedia has a nice list.
The Unhosted project implements another concept. Instead of providing a specific decentralized service it aims to be a meta-service. And after talking to Michiel de Jong I have the impression his plan is even more crucial. He aims to create something fundamental, a protocol, an architecture, a new way of writing web applications. The idea is the following: the traditional architecture of a hosted website provides both processing and storage. An unhosted website only hosts the application, not the data. Unhosted wants to separate the application from the data. By storing the data in another location and combining both application and data only in the browser, the application provider can never access the data. An ingenious and very ambitious idea. I hope they succeed!
A project that aims to replace Dropbox is ownCloud, an open personal cloud which runs on your personal server. It enables accessing your data from all of your devices. Sharing with other people is also possible. It supports automatic backups, versioning and encryption.
The Locker Project has similar goals. They allow self-hosting (installing their software on your own server) and offer a hosted service similar to what Dropbox provides. The service pulls in and archives all kinds of data that the user has permission to access and stores this data into the user’s personal Locker: Tweets, photos, videos, click-streams, check-ins, data from real-world sensors like heart monitors, health records and financial records like transaction histories (source).
A third project worth mentioning is sparkleshare. It is similar to the other projects in this category but allows pluggable backends. That means you can choose to use for example Github as backend for your data or of course your personal server. Awesome!
Freedom to the Networks
Projects such as netless carry the idea even further because after the data is liberated, the connection itself is a soft spot. Network connections should be liberated from corporate and government control by circumventing the big centralized data hubs and instead installing a decentralized wireless mesh network where everyone can participate and communicate.
The adventurous netless project plans to use the city transportation grid as its data backbone. Nodes of the network are attached to city vehicles – trams, buses, taxis and possibly – pedestrians. Information exchange between the nodes happens only when the carriers pass by each other in the city traffic. Digital data switches its routes just the same way you’d switch from tram number 2 to bus number 5. Very inspiring.
Another idea is to utilize networks of mobile phones to create a mesh network. The serval project is working on this. And they have a prototype for the Android platform ready.
The German Freifunk community pursues a similar goal. It is a non-commercial open initiative to support free radio networks in the German region. It is part of the international movement for free and wireless radio networks (source).
A purely software based project is Tor. It is free software and an open network that helps its users to defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy as well as confidential business activities and relationships.
Peer to Peer Currency
One integral thing this article did not talk about yet is money. Bitcoin, a peer to peer currency, might be the missing puzzle piece. The Bitcoin system has no central authority that issues new money or tracks transactions – it is managed collectively by the network.
A major problem of digital currency has been preventing double-spending. Digital money can be copied multiple times so a mechanism is necessary to forbid spending money twice. Bitcoin refrains from having actual digital coins. The system is merely one large transaction log that tracks what money was transferred where.
Each participant has a pair of public and private keys to sign transactions and to allow others to verify transactions. The transactions are entered into a global ever running log that is signed in regular intervals. The signing of the log is designed to require extensive computation time. The entire network of participating users is required to sign the log.
This protects the entire system from false signatures and from anyone tempering with the log and modifying past transactions. An attacker would have to have more computational power at his disposal than the entire Bitcoin network to forge transactions.
Users that give their computing time to the network are rewarded with Bitcoins for their troubles. This is also how the money is generated in the first place. In addition, participants that transfer money are free to include a transaction fee in their order. This extra money is given to the particular user signing the transaction.
A considerable number of sites have emerged that accept Bitcoins in exchange for services or goods. You can buy for example socks online or even pay for your lunch at a burger restaurant in Berlin.
In closing, I find it encouraging, that so many people feel that things have to change and are developing ideas and projects to make it happen. We will see many exciting things in the future and despite the overwhelming might of well-established products, I am hopeful.
How to get the version of the Nvidia kernel module on Linux? I’m posting this here because I’m sure I will forget this again. This is very relevant when evaluating that the proper driver is installed for CUDA use.
I added a Talks-page to this blog. I plan to list and publish interesting talks I gave at various occasions. Currently the page lists two talks: a GPGPU seminar I gave a year ago at my old university and just recently I had the honor of speaking at BoostCon about the project I worked on last year: a library for the Cell processor.
“Stallman was right” is one of the important messages Eben Moglen conveys in his recenttalks about Freedom and the Cloud. He’s a convincing speaker, his arguments are striking and the cause might very well be one of the most important challenges the Internet faces right now.
He speaks about privacy: the freedom to choose who to share what information with. He speaks about freedom of speech: the liberty to speak and communicate freely without censorship. He speaks about how we give up those freedoms, often without noticing or worse, without caring. By signing up to facebook. By using Gmail.
It’s insane if you think about it. We communicate with our friends, send them private messages, through a database in Northern California. We store our personal information including images in that same database. And while we put more and more information, more and more of our lives in that database, its owners are busy thinking about ways of how to make money with our data. By now I’m sure they have come to at least one conclusion: to make money they will share our data with entities we never intended to share it with.
It gets worse, and Eben Moglen elaborates this very well in his keynote speech at Fosdem 2011. All our data is routed through and even stored in a company’s database. We can choose to trust that particular company to not do anything bad with our data. But we can never be sure that the company will act in our interest if it is offered incentives (“We won’t shut you down if you comply”) to share certain data with certain government agencies. Since our data is stored in a centralized manner, agencies the likes of NSA would have a field day.
So indeed, Stallman was right when he called cloud computing a trap. He advises us “to stay local and stick with our own computers”.
Eben Moglen sees the urgency of these problems so he is taking action: informing the public with persuasive talks and gathering smart, ingenious and influential people to find solutions under the newly founded FreedomBox Foundation. The ingredients to the solution, in accordance to Stallman’s suggestion have been identified:
a free (as in freedom) software stack that is designed to respect and preserve the user’s privacy
mesh networking technology to keep the network alive if centralized internet connections fail
The idea is simple: replace all cloud services (social network, e-mail, photo storage etc) with distributed systems. The FreedomBox project aims to provide everyone with a compact, cheap, low-power plug computer. Such a device will come preloaded with free software that “knows how to securely contact your friends and business associates, is able to store and securely backup your personal data and generally maintaining your presence in the various networks you have come to rely on for communicating with people in society”.
There are a number of other projects out there that are worth mentioning here. A very interesting assessment of the current state of the social web and existing standards is the W3C Social Web Incubator Group report. The Diaspora project develops distributed and secure social networking software and is worth keeping an eye on. The FreedomBox community maintains a comprehensive list of existing projects.
I expect the foundation to develop a software package that provides stable system software and that encompasses a number of existing projects that allow users to move from cloud services to their own server. I will help were I can and so should you!