Tag Archives: privacy

The Hidden Drawbacks of P2P (And a Defense of Signal)

Not long ago, I posted a roundup of secure messengers with off-the-grid capabilities. Some conversation followed, which led me to consider some of the problems with P2P protocols.

P2P and Privacy

Brave adopting IPFS has driven a lot of buzz lately. IPFS is essentially a decentralized, distributed web. This concept has a lot of promise. But take a look at the IPFS privacy document. Some things to highlight:

  • “Nodes announce a variety of information essential to the DHT’s function β€” including their unique node identifiers (PeerIDs) and the CIDs of data that they’re providing β€” and because of this, information about which nodes are retrieving and/or reproviding which CIDs is publicly available.”
  • “those DHT queries happen in public. Because of this, it’s possible that third parties could be monitoring this traffic to determine what CIDs are being requested, when, and by whom.”
  • “nodes’ unique identifiers are themselves public…your PeerID is still a long-lived, unique identifier for your node. Keep in mind that it’s possible to do a DHT lookup on your PeerID and, particularly if your node is regularly running from the same location (like your home), find your IP address…Additionally, longer-term monitoring of the public IPFS network could yield information about what CIDs your node is requesting and/or reproviding and when.”

So in this case, you have traded giving information about what you request to specific sites to giving it to potentially hundreds of untrusted peers, some of which may be logging this for nefarious purposes. Worse, you have a durable PeerID that can be used for tracking and tied to your IP address — a data collector’s dream. This PeerID, combined with DHT requests and the CIDs (Content ID) of the things you host (implying you viewed them in the past), can be used to establish a picture of what you are requesting now and requested recently.

Similar can be said from everything like Scuttlebutt to GNU Jami; any service that operates on a P2P basis will likely reveal your IP, and tie your identity to it (and your IP address history). In some cases, as with Jami, this would be limited to friends you add; in others, as with Scuttlebutt and IPFS, it could be revealed to anyone.

The advantages of P2P are undeniable and profound, but few are effectively addressing the privacy implications. The one I know of that is, Briar, routes all traffic over Tor; every node is reached by a Tor onion service.

Federation: somewhat better

In a federated model, every client connects to a server, and there are many servers participating in a federation with each other. Matrix and Mastodon are examples of a federated model. In this scenario, only one server — your own homeserver — can track you by IP. End-to-end encryption is certainly possible in a federated model, and Matrix supports it. This does give a third party (the specific server you use) knowledge of your IP, but that knowledge can be significantly limited.

A downside of this approach is that if your particular homeserver is down, you are unable to communicate. Truly decentralized P2P solutions don’t have that problem — thought they do have a related one, which is that clients communicating with each other must both be online simultaneously in order for messages to be transmitted, and this can be a real challenge for mobile devices.

Centralization and Signal

Signal is centralized; it has one central server farm, and if it is down, you can’t communicate or choose any other server, either. We saw it go down recently after Elon Musk mentioned it.

Still, I recommend Signal for the general public. Here’s why.

Signal brings encryption and privacy to meet people where they’re at, not the other way around. People don’t have to choose a server, it can automatically recognize contacts that use Signal, it has emojis, attachments, secure voice and video calling, and (aside from the Musk incident), it all just works. It feels like, and is, a polished, modern experience with the bells and whistles people are used to.

I’m a huge fan of Matrix (aka Element) and even run my own instance. It has huge promise. But it is Not. There. Yet. Why do I saw this about Matrix?

  • Synapse, the only currently viable Matrix server, is not ready. My Matrix instance hosts ONE person, me. Synapse uses many GB of RAM and 10+GB of disk space. Despite extensive tuning, nothing helped much. It’s caused OOMs more than once. It can’t be hosted on a Raspberry Pi or even one of the cheaper VPSs.
  • Now then, how about choosing a Matrix instance? Well, you could just tell a person to use matrix.org. But then it spent a good portion of last year unable to federate with other popular nodes due to Synapse limitations. Or you could pick a random node, but will it be up when someone needs to say “my car broke down?” Some are run from a dorm computer, some by a team in a datacenter, some by one person with EC2, and you can’t really know. Will your homeserver be stable and long-lived? Hard to say.
  • Voice and video calling are not there yet in Matrix. Matrix has two incompatible video calling methods (Jitsi and built-in), neither work consistently well, both are hard to manage, and both have NAT challenges.
  • Matrix is so hard to set up on a server that there is matrix-docker-ansible-deploy. This makes it much better, but it is STILL terribly hard to deploy, and very simple things like “how do I delete a user” or “let me shrink down this 30GB database” are barely there yet, if at all.
  • Encryption isn’t mandatory in Matrix. E2EE has been getting dramatically better in the last few releases, but it is still optional, especially for what people would call “group chats” (rooms). Signal is ALWAYS encrypted. Always. (Unless, I guess, you set it as your SMS provider on Android). You’ve got to take the responsibility off the user to verify encryption status, and instead make it the one and only way to use the ecosystem.

Again, I love MAtrix. I use it every day to interact with Matrix, IRC, Slack, and Discord channels. It has a ton of promise. But would I count on it to carry a “my car’s broken down and I’m stranded” message? No.

How about some of the other options out there? I mentioned Briar above. It’s fantastic and its offline options are novel and promising. But in common usage, it can’t deliver a message unless both devices are online simultaneously, and doesn’t run on iOS (though both are being worked on). It also can’t send photos or do voice or video calling.

Some of these same limitations apply to most of the other Signal alternatives also. either that, or they are encryption-optional, or terribly hard to set up and use. I recently mentioned Status, which shows a ton of promise, but has no voice or video calling capabilities. Scuttlebutt is a fantastic protocol with extremely difficult onboarding (lengthy process, error-prone finding a pub, multi-GB initial download, etc.) And many of these leak IP addresses as discussed above.

So Signal gives people:

  • Dead-simple setup
  • Store-and-forward delivery (devices need not be online simultaneously)
  • Encrypted everything, including voice and video calls, and the ability to send photos and video encrypted

If you are going to tell someone, “it’s so EASY to get your texts away from Facebook and AT&T”, then Signal is the thing you’ve got to point them to. It may not be in two years, but for now, it is. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It advances the status quo without harming usability, which nothing else does yet.

I am aware of all of the very legitimate criticisms of Signal. They are real and they are why I am excited that there are so many alternatives with promise, some of which I use actively. Let us technical people use, debug, contribute to, and evangelize the alternatives.

And while we’re doing that, tell Grandma to contact us on Signal.

Roundup of Secure Messengers with Off-The-Grid Capabilities (Distributed/Mesh Messengers)

Amid all the conversation about Signal, and the debate over decentralization, one thing has often not been raised: all of these things require an Internet connection.

“Of course,” you might say. “Internet is everywhere these days.” Well, not so much, and it turns out there are some very good reasons that people might want messengers that work offline. Here are some examples:

  • Internet-using messengers leak certain metadata (eg, that a person is using it, or perhaps a sophisticated adversary could use timing analysis to determine that two people are talking using it)
  • Cell signal outages due to natural disaster, large influx of people (protests, unusual sporting events, festivals, etc), or other factors
  • Locations where cell signals are not available (rural areas, camping locations, wilderness areas, etc.)
  • Devices that don’t have cell data capability (many tablets, phones that have had service expire, etc.)

How do they work?

These all use some form of local radio signal. Some, such as Briar, may use short-range Bluetooth and Wifi, while others use radios such as LoRa that can reach several miles with low power. I’ve written quite a bit about LoRa before, and its unique low-speed but extreme-distance radio capabilities even on low power.

One common thread through these is that most of them are Android-only, though many are compatible with F-Droid and privacy-enhanced Android distributions.

Every item on this list uses full end-to-end encryption (E2EE).

Let’s dive on in.

Briar

Of all the options mentioned here, Briar is the one that bridges the traditional Internet-based approach with alternative options the best. It offers three ways for distributing data:

  • Over the Internet, via Tor onion services
  • Via Bluetooth to nearby devices
  • Via Wifi, to other devices connected to the same access point, even if Internet isn’t wokring on that AP

As far as I can tell, there is no centralized server in Briar at all. Your “account”, such as it is, lives entirely within your device; if you wipe your device, you will have to make a new account and re-establish contacts. The use of Tor is also neat to see; it ensures that an adversary can’t tell, just from that, that you’re using Briar at all, though of course timing analysis may still be possible (and Bluetooth and Wifi uses may reval some of who is communicating).

Briar features several types of messages (detailed in the manual), which really are just different spins on communication, which they liken to metaphors people are familiar with:

  • Basic 1-to-1 private messaging
  • “Private groups”, in which one particular person invites people to the chat group, and can dissolve it at any time
  • “Forums”, similar to private groups, but any existing member can invite more people to them, and they continue to exist until the last member leaves (founder isn’t special)
  • “Blogs”, messages that are automatically shared with all your contacts

By default, Briar raises an audible notification for incoming messages of all types. This is configurable for each type.

“Blogs” have a way to reblog (even a built-in RSS reader to facilitate that), but framed a different way, they are broadcast messages. They could, for instance, be useful for a “send help” message to everyone (assuming that people haven’t all shut off notifications of blogs due to others using them different ways).

Briar’s how it works page has an illustration specifically of how blogs are distributed. I’m unclear on some of the details, and to what extent this applies to other kinds of messages, but one thing that you can notice from this is that a person A could write a broadcast message without Internet access, person B could receive it via Bluetooth or whatever, and then when person B gets Internet access again, the post could be distributed more widely. However, it doesn’t appear that Briar is really a full mesh, since only known contacts in the distribution path for the message would repeat it.

There are some downsides to Briar. One is that, since an account is fully localized to a device, one must have a separate account for each device. That can lead to contacts having to pick a specific device to send a message to. There is an online indicator, which may help, but it’s definitely not the kind of seamless experience you get from Internet-only messengers. Also, it doesn’t support migrating to a new phone, live voice/video calls, or attachments, but attachments are in the works.

All in all, a solid communicator, and is the only one on this list that works 100% with the hardware everyone already has. While Bluetooth and Wifi have far more limited range than the other entries, there is undeniably convenience in not needing any additional hardware, and it may be particularly helpful when extra bags/pockets aren’t available. Also, Briar is fully Open Source.

Meshtastic

Meshtastic is a radio-first LoRa mesh project. What do I mean by radio-first? Well, basically cell phones are how you interact with Meshtastic, but they are optional. The hardware costs about $30 and the batteries last about 8 days. Range between nodes is a few miles in typical conditions (up to 11km / 7mi in ideal conditions), but nodes act as repeaters, so it is quite conceivable to just drop a node “in the middle” if you and contacts will be far apart. The project estimates that around 2000 nodes are in operation, and the network is stronger the more nodes are around.

The getting started site describes how to build one.

Most Meshtastic device builds have a screen and some buttons. They can be used independently from the Android app to display received messages, distance and bearing to other devices (assuming both have a GPS enabled), etc. This video is an introduction showing it off, this one goes over the hardware buttons. So even if your phone is dead, you can at least know where your friends are. Incidentally, the phone links up to the radio board using Bluetooth, and can provide a location source if you didn’t include one in your build. There are ideas about solar power for Meshtastic devices, too.

Meshtastic doesn’t, as far as I know, have an option for routing communication over the Internet, but the devices appear to be very thoughtfully-engineered and easy enough to put together. This one is definitely on my list to try.

Ripple-based devices

This is based on the LoRa Mesh Radio Instructables project, and is similar in concept to Meshtastic. It uses similar hardware, a similar app, but also has an option with a QWERTY hardware keyboard available, for those that want completely phone-free operation while still being able to send messages.

There are a number of related projects posted at Instructables: a GPS tracker, some sensors, etc. These are variations on the same basic concept.

These use the Ripple firmware, which is not open source, so I haven’t pursued it further.

GoTenna

For people that want less of a DIY model, and don’t mind proprietary solutions, there are two I’ll mention. The first is GoTenna Mesh, which is LoRa-based and sells units for $90 each. However, there are significant community concerns about the longevity of the project, as GoTenna has re-focused on government and corporate work. The Android app hasn’t been updated in 6 monnths despite a number of reviews citing issues, and the iOS app is also crusty.

Beartooth

Even more expensive at $125 each is the Beartooth. Also a proprietary option, I haven’t looked into it more, but they are specifically targetting backwoods types of markets.

Do not use: Bridgefy

Bridgefy was briefly prominent since it was used during the Hong Kong protests. However, numerous vulnerabilities have been demonstrated, and the developers have said they are re-working the app to address them. I wouldn’t recommend it for now.

Alternatives: GMRS handhelds

In the USA, GMRS voice handhelds are widely available. Although a license is required, it is simple (no exam) and cheap ($35) and extends to a whole family. GMRS radios also interoperate with FRS radios, which require no license and share some frequencies, but are limited to lower power (though are often sufficient).

Handheld GMRS radios that use up to 5W of power are readily available. A voice signal is a lot harder to carry for a long distance than a very low-bandwidth digital one, so even with much more power you will probably not get the same kind of range you will with something like Meshtastic, and they don’t come with any kind of security or encryption at all. However, for basic communication, they are often a useful tool.

Non-Creepy Technology Purchasing & Gifting Guides

This time of year, a lot of people are thinking of buying gadgets and phones as gifts. But there are a lot of tech companies that have unethical practices, from terrible working conditions in their factories to spying on their users. Here are some buying guides to help you find gadgets that are fun – and not creepy.

The Free Software Foundation’s Ethical Tech Giving Guide is a fantastic resource from what’s probably the pickiest organization out there when it comes to tech. Not only do they highlight good devices, they also explain why and why you should, for instance, avoid the iPhone (their history of silencing political activists and spying on users).

The FSF also has a Guide to DRM-Free Living talks about books, video, audio, and software that respects your freedom by letting you make your own backups, move it to other devices, and continue to use your purchases even if you have no Internet or the company you bought them from goes bankrupt. This is a fantastic and HUGE resource; there are hundreds of organizations out there that provide content in a way that respects your rights — and many of them do it for free, legally, as well.

PrivacyTools has a fantastic series of guides on everything from email providers to operating systems, as well as links to a number of other guides.

The DeGoogle wiki on Reddit (as well as the sidebar) has a lot of fantastic alternatives to things like Chromebooks, Chrome, Gmail, etc.

Related resources

Here are some resources for education (what the issues are) and information about what companies and products to avoid.

In addition to the FSF’s other fantastic resources above, they also have a list of proprietary malware. It lists things, practices, and companies to avoid, and talks about the reasons why. Their addictions page is particularly good and relevant to my recent post on the problems of the attention economy.

The Surveillance Self-Defense site from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a fantastic introduction into how corporate surveillance works and how to defend against it.

Use with a grain of salt:

Mozilla, the people behind Firefox, have a site called Privacy Not Included that rates products by how “creepy” they are. They focus more narrowly on privacy than the more expansive set of freedoms the FSF considers (privacy is one of a number of things the FSF looks at), and in some cases I would say Mozilla is too generous (eg, with the Amazon Kindle, a number of their data points are just incorrect.)