In the cat and mouse game between the prying eyes of oppressive states and anti surveillance technology designers, there’s a new paradigm. But it’s not the technology itself, it’s the way it’s being designed - everything from the funding to the code is available for everyone to see. Sascha Meinrath, founder of Commotion Wireless, explains to Bob the paradox that the more information they reveal about their privacy software, the more secret it is.
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BOB GARFIELD: Activists and others, help is on the way, potentially, from a group called Commotion Wireless. It’s designing software that lets impromptu networks spring up quickly and quite anonymously. Sascha Meinrath is the director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative and the founder of Commotion Wireless. He says that the best way to ensure that users of his software are protected from prying eyes is to let those prying eyes know every single thing they might want to know.
SASCHA MEINRATH: Every time there’s a news story on this we get a number of inquiries. We’ve probably had several thousand from almost every country on earth. And, of course, we don’t know who many of these people are. They could be from exactly the countries where these kind of technologies would be most useful. Because of our approach to make all the information as open and available as possible, we don’t worry about having to do the due diligence before providing information to them, because everything is already publicly available.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me how giving the bad guys access to what you're doing doesn’t enable them to reverse-engineer your software and neutralize Commotion.
SASCHA MEINRATH: Sure. Well, you can imagine, if I asked you to randomly pick a number between one and a hundred million, and I told you that based on whatever random number you choose, I’m gonna use that to encode my message, that just because you know how I generated that random number doesn’t necessarily mean you can guess that random number. And encryption works very much the same way. It’s far easier to encrypt and secure a communication than to decrypt.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s talk a bit about the architecture of Commotion, to begin with. It is creating ad hoc networks of wireless devices in a way that prevents regimes or any other eavesdroppers from being able to shut somebody down at the central source.
SASCHA MEINRATH: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me how that works.
SASCHA MEINRATH: Sure. Most people will be familiar with a cell phone network. And every cell phone on that network connects from that cell phone up to a central tower. Now, if I’m trying to surveil or censor, the place where I put all of that technology is on that central tower. If you have an ad hoc network, say a cell phone talks directly to another cell phone, it never goes through that central tower. It just requires then an inordinate amount of energy to be at every single location between every single kind of communications that might happen. And if you add on top of that then layers of encryption between these devices, it becomes far more difficult to shut down or to surveil.
BOB GARFIELD: It - it’s easy to see that if you can build these ad hoc networks, you know, you’d be able, for example, to go about your dissident behavior without fear of being arrested and tortured, and so forth. It also would seem that if you were an organized criminal doing human trafficking, drugs, you name it, this would also be a very handy technology to have.
SASCHA MEINRATH: Absolutely. Every powerful communications tool is a Faustian bargain. What this is, is really just making explicit a reality that’s already here. Amongst geeks and hackers and what-have-you, they’re already using these kinds of technologies. Most of what we’re doing is putting these really useful technologies in the hands of the larger populace.
BOB GARFIELD: Including terrorists and criminals.
SASCHA MEINRATH: Well, I feel that we have laws and rules and human intelligence that helps address that.
BOB GARFIELD: The U.S. Department of State is substantially bankrolling this project with two million bucks. That’s kind of an odd bedfellow considering that, I assume, the New America Foundation has some not insignificant issues with the way the U.S. government conducts surveillance.
SASCHA MEINRATH: Correct. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important that all the code remain completely open, that it becomes very clear that there’s now secret back doors or other malfeasance that might have snuck in. I would say when it comes to things like surveillance and foreign policies, there is a complexity there. On the one hand, for example, we want to empower copyright holders to enforce copyright and prevent piracy. And so, the U.S. government puts forward more surveillance and monitoring of Internet traffic.
And, on the other hand, we want to insure that there is security and privacy of communications for human rights workers and democracy advocates, and so, we want to build the perfect circumvention technologies to prevent monitoring and surveillance. And it is right now very much a reality that both agendas, which are, at times mutually exclusive, are both being forwarded.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Sascha, thank you very much.
SASCHA MEINRATH: It’s been my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Sascha Meinrath is the founder of Commotion Wireless, which is being developed at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C.