Privacy enhancing tools have a bad reputation when it comes to usability. Nathan Freitas of The Guardian Project demonstrated easy to use apps that provide security and anonymity for mobile devices at the TA3M meetup.

Techno-Activism Third Mondays (TA3M) is an informal meetup for techno-activists, hacktivists and anyone interested in free and open technology. The event, an initiative of US-based OpenITP takes place in different cities at the same day. People got together in New York, San Francisco, Madison (US) and Amsterdam (EU) on March 18.

The Amsterdam branch is organized by Greenhost [Dutch], a hosting company advocating sustainability and digital freedom. They invited two speakers, Nathan Freitas founder of The Guardian Project and Simone Halink of digital rights organization Bits of Freedom.

‘There are two basic themes I always hear about privacy and  security and that is that people don’t care and it’s too hard. At The Guardian Project we’re addressing those two things’, Freitas told the TA3M crowd.

As to the first point, many people think that protecting the privacy of their communications is something for activists operating under authoritarian regimes. They consider their online activities not important enough for anyone to listen in to. But an ever-increasing part of our life takes place online. The right to enjoy a basic privacy we all consider natural in face-to-face communications is rapidly eroding in the face of data-gathering companies and the insatiable urge of governments to keep tabs on citizens.

‘Your personal information’, says Freitas, ‘and the intimate conversations you have with people around you on a daily basis are important and valuable. Just because they’re happening on a computer shouldn’t devalue them and make them less private than when you and I talk in a room together.’

To make security accessible for the less tech-savvy The Guardian Project develops privacy enhancing mobile software. Freitas presented some of the apps coming out of the project.

Orbot is an app for the Android platform allowing anonymous web surfing through the Tor network. Tor or The Onion Router, directs traffic through a series of hops of the Tor network. Data is encrypted multiple times and each node peels away a layer of encryption making it difficult to analyze traffic. ‘With porting Tor onto phones I think we’re on to something’, says Freitas. ‘Orbot provides anonymity. If someone is  monitoring a network that you are on it will defend against them seeing what websites you go to. If a website is blocked you can get around the block. And it is simple. Just an app you can download.’

Gibberbot is an encrypted chat application allowing you to send instant messages without third parties listening in. Freitas: ‘instead of inventing something from scratch we decided to build upon standards because we want to work with software that already exists. So we used the open source Jabber XMPP protocol for instant messaging (IM) which is also used in Google Talk en Facebook Chat’.

The app uses the Off-the-Record (OTR) encryption protocol to provide end-to-end encryption and authenticates the person on the other end is who you think it is. The combination of protocols allows for secure IM inside Facebook or GTalk. ‘In places with massive state surveillance it’s good to tunnel secure chats through these mass marketed services’, says Freitas. ‘It’s better than setting up brand new servers that only five people use, that way they don’t stand out’.

ObscuraCam a visual privacy tool that lets you blur out parts of a picture. You can censor those parts of an image you don’t want the public to see before posting it online. For instance when you take a picture of a group of people and you aren’t sure they want their faces broadcasted on the Facebook network.

InformaCam is sort of the opposite. Pictures taken with this tool incorporate sensor data from your phone into the image file. Time, location, nearby cell towers, compass bearings and so on are captured and cryptographically signed. The metadata can be used to proof the image was taken in a particular context. The app is build for protesters and journalists to authenticate their image.

Hacking Government
Simone Halink discussed the efforts of Bits of Freedom to move the Dutch government towards transparency about its 50.000 user data requests. So far the politicians are not very forthcoming. She also spoke about the Dutch government’s plans to implement a law allowing law enforcement agencies to hack into computers of citizens both domestically and abroad. A topic that sparked an animated discussion.

There is an audio file of all that transpired here.
07.30 Simone Halink, Bits of Freedom.
42.17 Nathan Freitas, The Guardian Project.

The next multi-location TA3M will take place on April 15. If you want to organize a TA3M in your city contact OpenITP.

Image: cc 2.0 Niels ten Oever – Free Press Unlimited // Internet Protection Lab