This week it was officially announced that the United States National Security Agency (NSA) has been mining data from cellular service provider, Verizon. People were, and are, freaking out! How could the government do such a thing? What kind of totalitarian state are we really in?
Folks, there are those of us who have been trying to tell you this for years. Not just tin-hatters, but people who were a part of doing it, people who have had it happen to them, and people who had voted for, or against, the legislation to do these things. But our heads keep going back into the sand.
I’ll never understand how someone can deny that the government, any government, might be listening to everything we say and do, when there was a cover story article about it in Wired magazine, back in March 2012. Go read the article, The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), then come back and find out what you can do to opt-out of Big Brother on the Internet.
In the not so distant past, a few people understood that the Web was going to become the largest communications tool ever imagined. The sheer volume of information that is generated and placed on the web everyday, is greater than all the information that existed in written form prior to 1800. Over 5,000 years of the written word could not equal what we publish in a day.
A great deal of that information is personal, and to a government that wishes to control its people, this is the greatest gift we could give them. Ian Clarke understood this and strove to create a tool that would have the functionality of the web, but with as much anonymity as possible. Thus was born FreeNet in the year 2000.
Historically, the FreeNet project has been known to those in the general public who even know about it, as a file sharing service. Kind of like Napster back then, or BitTorrent today. As a file sharing format it didn’t work very well. That is, it worked more slowly than the Napsters of yesterday or the BitTorrents of today. Those that saw it as simply a file sharing tool, left FreeNet, leaving behind not many people who saw it for what it truly is – liberated information.
How FreeNet Works – The Nutshell Version
FreeNet runs something like a cross between BitTorrent and a web server. It’s like BitTorrent in that little bits of the information are stored across the network of computers using FreeNet. If you’d like to know more about how BitTorrent works, we have an article on that. No single computer should have the complete file, all of the time. This makes it hard to shut someone down for serving up information, because they don’t even know what information they have!
I could have 8 bits from a movie on my computer, but how could anyone know what movie? The 8 bits in itself is not useful information. However, when it is combined with the thousands of other little bits of information, it can become a useful file. Perhaps a recipe for cookies, or a song, or even communications between political dissidents. Even then, what information is on your hard drive should be encrypted. FreeNet recommends using TrueCrypt, however FreeNet also has the ability to encrypt the files it uses.
Where it’s like a web server is that it allows you to utilize the web to share information with others. For more on how a web server works, we also have an article on that. It does this using encrypted connections (nodes) that connect to other nodes on the FreeNet. This makes the usage of FreeNet hard to detect. It appears almost like normal web communications. You can make your server public, which is the least secure method, or you can make it private so that only people you want to access your files can even see that you exist. This is, of course, the most secure method.
If you’re new to FreeNet, you’ll probably use the Low Security setting of FreeNet. Then, once you find friends of a feather, you may start to migrate more and more toward the Dark FreeNet. Dark, meaning not highly visible. You and your friends can now openly discuss politics, religion, ecology, inventions, whatever! You can do so with a degree of certainty that no one really knows who you are.
In fact, this has made FreeNet the most popular web privacy tool in China, and several other countries with oppressive regimes. That is not to say that the encryption and methodology will provide perfect security. I simply don’t believe that exists. Where a person is smart enough to create good security, someone else who is smarter will come along and foil that security. Such is life.
One downside to FreeNet is that because of the security measures, it is inherently slower than your normal web browsing. Just remember that all those nodes that have the information you want have to be connected to, and all the information has to be downloaded and decrypted on your computer for you to make sense of it. Inconvenience is the price we pay for security. However, FreeNet provides you with information about how many nodes are connected and what your security level is, so you know what kind of speeds to expect.
FreeNet also estimates the download time and progress for each page you access.
You can also chose to download the file in the background, and save it to a specific directory for later viewing. Or you can fetch the file, however it will only be accessible through FreeNet’s download page.
A Warning About Using FreeNet
Imagine a market scene like you might have seen in an Indiana Jones movie. People scurrying about, most of them just trying to make a living selling rugs or spices, but under the cover of the activity there are always those that are selling drugs or guns, or running gambling rings. There is a dark underbelly to the beast.
There is definitely this kind of illegal, and immoral, activity happening on FreeNet. Just don’t take part in it. Just like this kind of activity happens on the regular web that you use everyday, you just don’t take part in it and life is good.
I believe that the more positive use of FreeNet there is, the less of the immoral activity there will be. The immoral don’t like being seen at all, and will scatter like cockroaches in the light, if more moralistic people are around them.
The Take Away
The regular web is a wonderful thing and useful beyond what we can even comprehend today. It is still in it’s infancy as a technology. Today, it is akin to the phone’s partyline, where anybody could pick up a phone and hear what’s happening to your great aunt Martha. Freenet is a step toward the privacy of having your own private phone line. The more people that use these private lines, the more that the system will move to this privacy model. So use your party line if what you are talking about is of no significance, but pick up the FreeNet private line when you need to discuss things that really matter.
Have you used the FreeNet project before? Would you use it? Do you think it’s a waste of time for average folks? What other secure methods are there for communicating on the Internet? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in our comments section below. Just so you know, it is public.
Image Credit: Security Man via Shutterstock.