Can There Be a Safer Internet?

Supporters hold yellow umbrellas as Hong Kong student leaders arrive at the police headquarters in Hong KongI probably feel very much like most people in that the Internet is feeling less and less safe to use. Viruses have been around a long time, but once you learned to not open emails you didn’t recognize, that risk became somewhat minimal. But now you can get viruses just by opening a web site that has corrupted ads. I know this because I got three such viruses a few weeks ago.

But that’s not even the scary part since I can generally scrub viruses from my computer. There are far worse risks than viruses today. To start with, there are the people who are sending malware and then holding your computer hostage until you pay them (and who then, apparently, still don’t fix your machine).

And it appears that everybody is spying on us. Edward Snowden has shown us numerous ways that the NSA is watching us. I literally get dozens of new tracking cookies on my computer every day from commercial companies that want to track me somehow. And every large web company is apparently gathering data on us, including companies like Facebook and Google along with most of the apps we put onto our smartphones.

But since my work depends on using the Internet, and since it also has become one of my major sources of entertainment, I am not likely to abandon the Internet due to lack of safety. I do what I can to be safe, but I doubt it makes much difference. I scrub my machine every day from tracking cookies and I use browsers that supposedly don’t track me. But my guess is that those two things make almost no difference for protecting my computer or my privacy.

The biggest problem, aside from every web entity trying to build a profile on me, is that the entire web is based upon a model where everything we do winds up somewhere at end points that cannot be made safe. Everybody is touting encryption as a way to stay safer on the web, but every encrypted message end up at a machine somewhere that decrypts it, and it is the end computers and servers that are the weak points in the Internet. Your data is stored on servers that are out of your control, and your safety relies on the people running those servers to be safe. And we all know that hackers are breaking into servers every day, and it may even turn out that there are back door spying keys built directly into most server software.

There are experts who say that the lack of safety might kill the Internet. We are incredibly reliant on companies that we don’t know to keep our data safe – and we have seen that both hackers and nefarious insiders can compromise almost any company. If the hackers win the war then it will become too unsafe to buy anything over the web (or even give your credit card numbers to vendors in some other manner if they are going to keep the info on their servers).

But there are alternate models of the Internet that might offer solutions. One of these is known as a block chain. Block chains are a decentralized system of communication that lets end users communicate directly with each other without having to go through the normal centralized servers. The block chain technology is most well known as the basis of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. There have been numerous articles and papers written about the wild swings in Bitcoin pricing, but that has to do with basic economics rather than the underlying technology that allows the transactions.

In a block chain network, each member of the network has a copy of the software that identifies them as part of a particular block chain. Before communication is allowed between any two members of a block chain the identity of each party must be verified by somebody else who is part of the chain. With such verification the communication is allowed. The process is slow compared to normal web transaction, perhaps 10,000 times slower than a normal text or email. But it is safe. The steps needed to operate a block chain are as follows:

  1. New transactions are broadcast to all nodes.
  2. Each node collects new transactions into a block.
  3. Each node works on finding a difficult proof-of-work for its block.
  4. When a node finds a proof-of-work, it broadcasts the block to all nodes.
  5. Nodes accept the block only if all transactions in it are valid.
  6. Nodes express their acceptance of the block by working on creating the next block in the chain, using the hash of the accepted block as the previous hash.

There are already some examples of block chains being used for communications other than financial ones. For example, the protesters in Hong Kong last year established a block chain so that they could communicate with each other without Chinese government oversight.

There are new companies that want to use block chains to bring safety into other types of communications. For example, Codius is using block chains to provide safe online legal transactions. This provides a way for parties to safely sign contracts without having to exchange paper. Ethereum is working on a block chain technology that could be used as the basis for any kind of communication. They think their platform could be used for things like private chats, private emails, and even safe web searches.

One can envision many other uses for using block chains to create safe communications among specified groups of users. That might be a corporation and its employees, all of the students in a given dorm, or just about any group that wants safe communications. Such a closed system would provide for secure and private communication within the block. It’s not a total solution, but it’s a start.

A New Kind of Internet?

Hong-Kong-ProtestSomething very interesting happened over the last few weeks that provides a glimpse into a different future for the Internet. The students and others who were protesting in Hong Kong were able to set up a private network that bypassed the Chinese authorities using a blockchain. I will describe what that is below.

There are currently a lot of different people who don’t like the way the Internet is operated today. First, we have the NSA surveillance and everything that implies. Numerous countries around the world are in the process of setting up servers that will keep a lot of local data on their own servers so that it doesn’t leave the country. In effect we are looking at a world where each country may have its own Internet cloud and a firewall around their data

Probably even more intrusive, we have a few large companies controlling a large percentage of what happens on the web. Science Fiction writer and futurist Bruce Sterling calls these large companies the ‘Stacks’ and his current list includes Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. We know that these large companies each have their own agenda for tracking each of us, mostly for marketing purposes, but each of them also has cooperated to some degree with the NSA.

Finally, we have the possibility that in the US that the FCC is going to vote against net neutrality which will free the large companies and the ISPs to do what they wish. It may seem a bit nationalistic to think that what happens here is important to the world, but since the large companies that control the web today are all American, to some extent, as goes America so goes the web.

There are many who are disturbed by these trends and I have seen numerous articles asking if the Internet as we think of it is already dying. To counteract these trends we have seen numerous new browsers, email services and encryption programs introduced in the last year for people who are looking to opt out of the surveillance world.

And now we have Hong Kong which is behind the Great Firewall of China where the government micromanages Internet access. Had the Hong Kong protesters used any of the normal available services to communicate, such as email or the various social media sites in China they would have been quickly squashed. So instead they cleverly established a blockchain.

A blockchain is a software technology that was established as the basis for trading Bitcoins. A simplified explanation of a blockchain is that it’s a distributed consensus network that allows communications to be made securely and without any centralized authority. The Bitcoin world is entirely based upon trading currency, but the same technology can be used to exchange any other kind of communication such as emails, tweets, etc. Every transaction is encrypted including a unique encrypted code given to each user of the network. This means that even if intercepted by the Chines authorities, the blockchain communications were coded both in terms of content and identity of participants.

One of the interesting things about blockchain communications is the consensus required for it to work. Each user involved in the blockchain basically validates everybody else. If for some reason there is no communication on the blockchain, then after a set amount of time the whole chain collapses.

So the protesters in Hong Kong established a temporary encrypted peer-to-peer network that was impenetrable by the authorities. This let them communicate and coordinate their activities free from oversight or censorship. And when the protest ends the blockchain will collapse and disappear.

This concept could become the basis for establishing secure group communications in the future that falls outside of the NSA or large company tracking. It’s not hard to imagine those with similar interests of some sort being able to launch their own blockchain that would just look like indecipherable bits as it passed through any Internet hubs or monitoring points. Such networks need not be nefarious and a blockchain network could be used for any group like a college fraternity, a science fiction fan club, the fans of a sports team or band, or anything else. Such networks could spring up and disappear as needed and would only be available to those with some sort of in on how to join. But even those who are insiders in the network have no way to see what others are doing and they can only decode their own transactions.

It’s an interesting concept and is the first effective way that people are bypassing the surveillance world. The vast majority of people in the world have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t mean that they enjoy having large companies or governments track and record everything they do. Expect there to be numerous attempts to create alternatives to today’s Internet. And expect it to be a cat-and-mouse game where new strategies avoid surveillance for a while until cracked, but with new ideas strategies waiting to work next. We could be seeing the start here of a new Internet where people take back privacy by opting out of products offered by the mainstream companies.