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Our job, part III-b: Communications brass tacks

I’m quite determined not to write a part III-c(5)(xyz) of this series, so I plan to give as good a brass-tacks overview of alt-communications potential as I can in this one post.

I’m sorry to disappoint you who expect detail, but that would literally require a book. Hopefully I can provide a framework and a few good links on where future privacy tech might go. But this is an area where you of the Commentariat can fill in where I have to skim.

H/Ts in advance to S, CX, the blog Commentariat, and the members of the Living Freedom Forums.

—–

The privacy-focused alt-comms we need in our future will have hundreds or thousands of variations. But they are likely to fall into three broad categories:

  • Global and high tech, adapting current or evolutionary tech to supplement (or replace) the present, very broken internet and cellphone systems;
  • Global or local and medium tech, using some variation on radio;
  • Mostly local and non-tech, using historic methods, both open and covert.

Obviously, these three forms of communication are hugely different and at first I struggled with how to shoehorn them into one blog post.

But if they are to work properly FOR freedom and AGAINST totalitarian surveillance and control, all comms systems will hold to the same four principles:

  1. Communications systems should be decentralized.
  2. They should be flexible enough to route around damage.
  3. Users should always own and control their own equipment and (if any) software.
  4. Your data should belong to you absolutely, both in principle and in fact.

Such systems can be more private and will be more controllable by users. But it’s also important to note we are not talking about super-duper top-secret uncrackable systems. There is simply no such thing — or at least no such thing that is within our practical reach. We are simply talking about systems that are not in the control of billionaire oligarchs or totalitarian governments. How secure they truly are depends on many factors.

Please keep that in mind as background as we move on to the briefest look at the types of communications systems or devices that might help us get there.

The future of alt-tech alt-comms

In the early days of the Internet we had a saying: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

Not anymore, it doesn’t!

Did John Gilmore make a mistake when he said that back in 1994? That hardly seems likely, as Arpanet, the forerunner and original backbone of the Internet was designed to survive — and route around — nuclear war. Yet today we have trouble routing around Google, Joe Biden, and the NSA.

So what happened between then and now?

Well, the short version is that although Arpanet could route around A-bombs, Arpanet didn’t have the Worldwide Web. Or graphical browsers. Or billions of clueless users who just wanted easy ways to talk to Grandma or watch porn. It was just scientists, students, and later enthusiasts, sending text rather laboriously around the world.

In short: bandwidth was a rare and expensive commodity.

Today, bandwidth is cheap. But in the interim, the companies we now know as Big Tech used their advantages of finances and scale (and often, their births at major universities or within telecoms) to corner bandwidth and build such an easy and compelling infrastructure of communications on their e-property that billions got hooked and now can’t kick the central-control habit.

It should never, ever have been this way.

And that observation takes us to Urbit — a not-ready-for-prime-time effort to return the Internet to what it should have developed into.

It’s best to let Urbit describe itself. It’s a very non-technical description. The idea is basically a cloud server in every home. Total decentralization. Privacy and private ownership of a private internet.

Am I endorsing Urbit? No. Very important note: I am not endorsing ANY tech company/foundation or any specific technology linked here. I’m saying, “These are the promising directions. These are developments that meet the four criteria above.”

I do believe that, of all the tech I’m mentioning in this post, Urbit and similar projects are the ones that truly strike at the root of our problems with tyranny-tech.

Many of my computer geek friends already operate private clouds. What’s needed is to expand and make such tech more accessible to us non-nerds. And even if this type of alt-internet never sweeps the globe, it could be very useful among privacy networkers.

In the nearer future category — and in the category of cellphones (which heaven knows need a privacy replacement as much as anything does), perhaps the most interesting is the Librem 5.

Ready for prime time? Again, no. And with the current chip shortage and supply line issues, development has been stalled. But again, take a look at the direction: user-removable battery (a must!); hardware kill switches; open-source operating system; no servitude to the whims of either Apple or Google. Plus all the other things you love like an actual headphone jack. Will the Librem 5 be the future of cellphones? Dunno. It’s just on the right path to route around the oligarchy and restore users’ ownership and freedom.

OTOH, MIT says almost anyone can build their own cellular networks that will route calls around the world. All open source. Available now.

Can’t get into building whole new systems or waiting until privacy cellphones are a thing? Whonix promises easy anonymity of your individual communications. It claims to work by forcing all your connections to use TOR and other security measures.

Now we get to one of my pet peeves: “Easy” means you have to trust others. When it comes to your personal security, I don’t think that’s a good idea. That said, however, I realize how formidable most people find DIY encryption and other self-managed or self-researched forms of e-privacy.

In that case, why aren’t more of us using Signal, with its fairly believable promise of end-to-end encryption? Signal is NOW-tech — free to download, easy to use. It enables us to send texts, conduct group chats, and make phone calls, all with as much privacy as we can possibly expect in the here-and-now.

The latest version of the Thunderbird email client offers end-to-end encryption and while I loudly curse its implementation of it (because it wiped out the previous and vastly superior Enigmail encryption add-on), it is — again — easy privacy tech.

And I’m heartened to see more of my correspondents switching from Google’s spy-tech gmail to Switzerland’s much better Protonmail

Which unfortunately tells us one more thing about the future of secure tech: much of it will not be produced in the U.S.

The role of radio in all this

An impressive number of men (just about always men) in the prepper community are radio buffs. I have very little experience, even as a user, with this aspect of communications. So guys, please fill in the gaps and correct my errors.

Radio comms are notoriously not very private. They operate on government-controlled frequencies. And many of them require government licensing. So this fits into an alt-comms system how?

Well, there is some privacy in radio, and that aspect is growing. But the major benefit is that the radio world has been opened up in the last 20 years or so, enabling more varieties of local communications — which are very much needed at the community/neighborhood level. It’s not just ham radio any more (though that is alive, more accessible than it used to be, and sometimes a lifesaver), but a variety of short-range, hand-held options.

When TSHTF, either locally or globally, temporarily or long term, we may bless radio when the ‘Net and cellphone networks fail us. Already radio tech like like FRS (Family Radio Service) is useful to us when we need to keep in touch with, say, fellow wilderness hikers or fellow volunteers at an event. Or family members or members of our network.

Radio is a useful backup to other types of communications and should probably be part of our comms “arsenal” in the spirit of “two is one and one is none.”

Here’s a very good overview of prepper communications tech that covers pros, cons, and capabilities of four radio options.

That article doesn’t mention one of the newest options, Digital Mobile Radio (DRS). According to Wikipedia:

DMR was designed with three tiers. … The primary goal of the standard is to specify a digital system with low complexity, low cost and interoperability across brands, so radio communications purchasers are not locked into a proprietary solution.

Of course in practice, the non-proprietary aspect hasn’t necessarily worked out. But the bottom line is that DMR is a flexible system of handheld radios (one tier is unlicensed) that’s capable of transmitting both voice and data, including encrypted data, and that’s getting increasing use on amateur radio bands, where users are setting up repeaters and creating hotspots based on cheap little Raspberry Pi computers.

On the previous post multiple Commentariat members have already made informative comments on radio tech (and other comms topics), including DMR. I hope they and others will add more to this discussion.

Now, on to old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger.

The future of low-tech alt-comms

Oh, this is so much easier — except for the human problems common to all alt-comm systems (getting them adopted and not having them ruined by idiots). But the varieties! And the well-practiced techniques! And the histories! So after all that tech talk, let’s just have some fun with the possibilities here.

First, though, a caution: If you are trying to preserve either privacy or secrecy by using low-tech communication methods, DO NOT — do not EVER — take your old-fashioned methods online or transmit your confidential, hand-coded messages by cellphone.

The NSA has said they absolutely love people who try to fool them with homegrown codes and ciphers because the homemade product is usually so easy to break. So if you start something offline, keep it offline. In most cases, also keep it local. Recognize as always that nothing is infallible. Using non-tech comms can be fun and you can communicate relatively safely with chosen others in the real world to update them on developments, notify them of meetings, warn them of danger, and many other useful things. You can even create fake “secret messages” to mess with the heads of Authoritah.

Sometimes all you need to communicate is, “Others are with you; you are not alone.” Even that can be a very powerful purpose for traditional messaging.

Now, that said, how about considering:

Hobo sign — adapt it with modern freedomista meanings.

Printed samizdat. (But don’t use your own printer for sensitive communications; the Deep State can identify that.)

Dead drops.

Codes and ciphers.

Hiding messages in plain sight. (The tech version is steganography, but the IRL version can be as simple as a coded message on a store sign or a painted rock placed in an agreed-upon place.)

Invisible ink.

Committees of correspondence. (Which could also use codes, cyphers, invisible ink, printed samizdat, etc.)

Carved message sticks.

Drums, smoke signals, pictures, tattoos!

And how about one new-tech method using old non-tech delivery? You may love to hate NFC tech (aka spychips), but those cheap little chips can have their uses for anything from monkeywrenching to serving as vehicles for coded dead-drop communications.

Aaaaand, to bring us back to where we began in part III-a, carrier pigeons!

I’m confident your ingenuity can come up with more.

—–

I originally wrote a nice, long coda about why we need varieties of communications types, about how free people can outthink and outmaneuver government and crony surveillance and censorship in the long run, and various other things. I even managed to work in “Kumbayah” and “We Shall Overcome.”

But frankly, you’ve already heard enough from me today. You know you have. So I’ll wrap this up now and hope you’ve found something of use in its great length.

—–

After this message posts, I may be offline for while. I’ll be sure pending comments are approved and valid messages pulled out of the spam locker. But if you don’t hear from me for a couple of weeks, it’s probably not because I’ve been hauled off by the Deep State. Or at least I hope not.

21 Comments

  1. Comrade X
    Comrade X October 8, 2021 1:54 pm
  2. RC
    RC October 8, 2021 4:09 pm

    I’ve been curious about Urbit for a while, but so far (meaning I’ve looked at it only superficially) it seems rather clunky to me. Like many other things, to make the best use of it requires spending some time learning it. But I balk at statements such as, “The Urbit runtime needs a planet’s keyfile in order to boot it up for the first time. The keyfile contains the private cryptographic keys necessary for a planet to sign messages it sends and decrypt messages it receives. These keys are separate from either your Master Ticket (if applicable) or the Ethereum keys used to manage your Urbit ID.” Uh, OK, why do I need to deal with all this stuff? It seems to me there are other ways to self-host. OTOH, maybe it’s easier than it sounds, and having a bunch of stuff packaged up already has value. BTW, it seems to me that Urbit favors using hosting providers, rather than self hosting.

    I found out about the Freedom Box while poking around in the Gemini world. There are other things like that around.

    A while ago, I mentioned Micronetia as another self-hosting possibility.

    Alternatives abound, and it’s impossible to list them all. I know about Mastadon for example, but haven’t played with it.

    Jabber has been around for a long time, but never took off, since it got no notice in the age of AOL/MSN/Yahoo IM stuff, which then gave way to SMS on phones. I have a Jabber ID, but have found only a couple people who wanted to try it out. True end-to-end encrypted chat has been available for quite a while. I guess maybe it was too hard (like e-mail encryption) for most to want to use it.

    The old standby – Internet Relay Chat – is still around too.

    A YUUUUUUUUUGE number of possibilities are listed at Wikipedia’s Peer-to-peer page, such as the Interplanetary File System.

    The thing about all of these alternatives is that they rely on having an internet, and they’re on the internet. Perhaps for now that’s good enough, but I’ll wave my hand in the air and mention traffic analysis. Not to say we should pursue alternatives to the big providers, just that keeping such things in mind is prudent. And of course, almost all of us get our internet via either the phone or cable companies. I suspect they’d be happy to comply with an order from the TPTB to cut off our service.

    Thinking further out, a Ghz radio mesh network is something that is much easier to set up now than in the past. Using OTS hardware from, e.g. Ubiquiti and the AREDN software, a group of people can cover a large metro area with a fully private network. Yes, the presence of radio signals will be easy to see, but the comms running over it can be fully encrypted. You’ll get web servers, VOIP, IM, etc. – anything that runs on the internet.

    I still think that one of the best ways for people to learn about radio communications is to get a ham license. It’s still way cheap, and while I don’t care much for the BaoFeng radios, they’re a low-cost entry point if you can’t afford to spend more. Practice and learn now. Even as a technician-class operator, there’s tons of useful things to work with.

  3. RC
    RC October 8, 2021 6:09 pm

    Fun but not terribly useful fact I just found out about. Curtis Yarvin worked on Urbit. (aka Mencius Moldbug) Hmm, maybe that explains why it’s so weird?

  4. Sam Hall
    Sam Hall October 8, 2021 7:13 pm

    I took a quick look at Urbit. I’m not impressed. Why do they need a special OS or two special languages? Why spend time & R&D $$ developing those when there are excellent ones already around. I have a vague, fuzzy idea of what it does, and no idea why I should prefer Urbit to other ways to do the same thing(s).

  5. Sam Hall
    Sam Hall October 8, 2021 7:34 pm

    You mentioned Signal, which is a vast improvement on WhatsApp. Two alternatives are Matrix and Mastodon. Both are massively decentralized. I’ve looked more at Matrix. Matrix is a protocol, with lots of open source software available, both clients and servers. Neither one is likely to be absorbed by the Zuckerborg.

  6. Sam Hall
    Sam Hall October 8, 2021 7:37 pm

    If you want your own cloud server, look into nextcloud. You can install your own instance, rent space on other people’s servers, and probably other arrangements.

  7. Jolly
    Jolly October 9, 2021 8:43 am

    One major thing to understand is literally how far you want your communications to travel. Just your AO, or farther? The farther away from home base you go, the more likely ( almost certainty ) it’ll be intercepted. I’m concentrating – for now – on AO only. Literally just my valley.

    The next thing is that “security through obscurity is not security.” Urbit is instantly suspect to me BECAUSE it uses non-standard languages and operating systems. If ANY effort is directed at hiding HOW you hide your information – then you’re wasting time. The resources available by your opponents is staggering. It is far better to use well-tested and vetted systems – a standard distribution of one of the various flavors of Linux, for example, has been beaten-to-death for security purposes by private businesses to prevent hacks and compromises. I’ll take that any day over a weird off-the-wall home-brew system any day.

    Another aspect would be to not “announce” you’re making a hidden transmission. In other words, if your system relies on being quiet except for when a piece of information goes out – then you’ve alerted your opponents that something is “up” and they’ll know approximately when and where to start cracking your encryption ( if any ) for useful info.

    What you do, then, is keep a constant stream going. In the crypto world, this literally sounds like white noise. Most of the time, if any traffic is going through – the average listener would not be able to tell if it’s literally just noise, or actual messaging. You could also send the works of Shakespeare through the system, and intersperse real messages in the scenes – listeners would not be able to tell ( easily ) what is what.

    Next – as learned when I was working in the Navy, assume that whatever you’re sending WILL BE CRACKED. Thinking in this fashion, the Navy’s requirement was time – how LONG does it take to crack. If you’re giving battle orders, if it takes 72 hours for your opponent to decrypt, then you can make adjustments as necessary to those orders.

    This all appears to be a lot of work, but computers could help ( and help our opponents, too ). One has to figure-out, realistically, what KIND of comms are necessary, and who they need to reach. Assume they’ll be intercepted and cracked – and what, exactly, you think is useful.

    I’m concentrating on first responder, and entertainment / news myself.

    PS( I have several servers in my house, along with a fair amount of storage. I know enough about addressing that I could create a local ( very local ) system for my valley which would allow local people to have a private network, able to be closed-off from the main internet as necessary. )

  8. Claire
    Claire October 9, 2021 7:55 pm

    Thank you, guys. These are exactly the kind of comments I was hoping you knowledgeable people would offer. Regarding Urbit, two points. One, I’m not endorsing it. Two, I chose it because it’s a long-time, still apparently very alive, project. It’s also a work in progress that could end up being very different than it began. (I don’t know.)

    My point was that the ‘Net needs to be decentralized and ownership of it put back into the possession of users, not cronycorps and NSA affiliates. Any leads you have to decentralization projects that you think are superior … by all means post them. Input like yours is exactly what we need.

  9. Granny
    Granny October 10, 2021 5:49 am

    A long time ago, I had several “pizza box” servers sitting around, hoping to create my own family-oriented, encrypted, secured, chat and email server(s). I finally let them go because I never got around to setting things up – too busy making a living. Anywho, what my family and I have agreed to when SHTF, assuming cell and Internet is down and things have gotten really bad, is agreed upon rendezvous points – and get there however you can (there’s a lot to that topic). A lot of thought has gone into the strategy over the *years*. The primary strategy was relocating to “safer havens”. We didn’t all agree on where but not too, too, far from one another. In each of our “homesteads”, we have room for one another. The proof of our plans won’t be known until it’s go time. We have to assume, that without communications, we won’t know the progress or status of each other, but there is Plan A, B, C, and D. We pray a lot too.

  10. s
    s October 10, 2021 9:35 am

    Sam Hall: “Why do they need a special OS or two special languages?”

    Read Yarvin’s explanation for that, written 11 years ago.
    https://moronlab.blogspot.com/2010/01/urbit-functional-programming-from.html

    “Why spend time & R&D $$ developing those when there are excellent ones already around.”

    Which OS would those be? Unix? Windows? IOS? Android? I can think of many adjectives for each of those, and many lesser well known OS, and all the languages, but “excellent” isn’t one of them.

    Yarvin was spot on:

    “fsck this entire fscking ball of mud. For lo, its defects cannot be summarized; for they exceed the global supply of bullet points; for numerous as the fishes in the sea, like the fishes in the sea they fsck, making more little fscking fishes. For lo, it is fscked, and a big ball of mud. And there is only one thing to do with it: obliterate the trunk, fire the developers, and hire a whole new fscking army of Martian code-monkeys to rewrite the entire fscking thing.”

    Once you read is 2010 post the reference to “Martian code-monkeys” will make perfect sense.

    Whether he succeeds remains to be seen, but I admire his vision and boldness.

  11. Simon Templar
    Simon Templar October 10, 2021 11:25 am

    RE: Sam Hall’s comment: “Matrix is a protocol, with lots of open source software available, both clients and servers.”

    Mike Masnick over at Techdirt has been preaching “protocols, not platforms” for years. Here is a long article of his on the subject:

    https://knightcolumbia.org/content/protocols-not-platforms-a-technological-approach-to-free-speech

    That is the way the Internet was in the beginning, before the big platforms took over. That is the direction that we need to take to kick the big platforms past the curb and into the gutter where they belong.

  12. Toirdhealbheach Beucail
    Toirdhealbheach Beucail October 11, 2021 5:56 am

    On a more philosophical level (of course I do not know the answer to it), is there a point at which decentralized systems starting taking a bite out of big tech? And what happens if and when that happens? Given past history, I suspect big tech’s solution would just be “buy them out.”

  13. Simon Templar
    Simon Templar October 11, 2021 6:38 am

    If you go with a “protocols, not platforms” approach, buying them out isn’t really an option. And, yeah, they would take a bite out of big tech, in direct proportion to their use. +1 for protocols!

  14. Jolly
    Jolly October 11, 2021 6:44 am

    I vigorously disagree with s and his references to Yarvin. I’d follow cryptography expert Bruce Schneier’s guidelines on the aforementioned “Security through obscurity is not security.” Open source is great, certainly, but the best open source projects have large numbers of people actively trying to break them.

    Ubuntu, Red Hat, Debian, etc., all qualify under this rubrik. An OS I’ve never even heard of – and I’ve been an active software engineer for 30+ years – does NOT have that amount of verification.

    You can trash the various linux distributions at your peril. There are billion dollar companies using Red Hat and Debian. Ubuntu is a variation of Debian and is the most popular linux distribution from sheer numbers on the planet.

    Neither iOS nor Android is desirable as a platform because they are both compromised at best. Further, to actually be able to distribute an iOS application – you have to go through an approval process at Apple – which is a lot of work and quite irritating. ( I’ve been through it several times ).

    Android, in particular, is horrific about snooping on you. However, you CAN distribute applications without begging Google for permission ( so far ), and the underlying language – Java – has a lot of security features.

    Yarvin may have nothing but contempt for the modern operating systems – with good cause against Windoze and MacOS – but he’s full of baloney with regards to various linux distributions above. While certainly not perfect, they’ve been abused and hacked for years and are pretty rugged.

    They’re just not particularly user friendly.

  15. RC
    RC October 11, 2021 10:54 am

    @TB: Given past history, I suspect big tech’s solution would just be “buy them out.”

    The point of a decentralized, or distributed system, would be that the nodes are operated by individuals, rather than corporations. Thus, there’s nothing to buy out.

    This does nothing for traffic blocking on the part of ISPs and backbone carriers, unless the underlying network itself is also fully privatized and distributed.Okay, “privatized” is a poor term here. Something like a self-contained community network could conceivably be immune to censorship, but without gateways to the larger world, would of course have a limited reach.

  16. The Freeholder
    The Freeholder October 11, 2021 11:26 am

    I will once again plug/plead for a renaissance of old-fashioned BBS systems, FidoNet in particular. Being old tech, they run on old tech, which is still cheap enough to make widespread adoption by the many possible. The downside is needing an old-fashioned POTS line, but even that is still available.

    I have all the necessary parts to put together such a system. It’s a project for the colder months. Along with many other projects. 🙂

  17. larryarnold
    larryarnold October 12, 2021 2:56 pm

    The NSA has said they absolutely love people who try to fool them with homegrown codes and ciphers because the homemade product is usually so easy to break.

    I’d classify that as somewhat misinformation. Why sweat breaking the cipher? If NSA discovers you’re transmitting in code they’ll track who all is doing the transmitting and receiving (The “we want as many arrests as possible” theory) and then “ask” one of you for the key.

    I remember a conversation with an IT whiz a couple decades ago:
    IT: Every soldier in a unit should have radio-communication. You could talk to each other like you were standing in formation.
    Me: Unfortunately, the enemy could intercept the signals.
    IT: But they would be encrypted. We can (insert IT jargon how the encryption could make the conversation unreadable by anyone not using the technology) so the enemy would never know what the soldiers were saying.
    Me: But they could track where the signal originated.
    IT: So what? They can’t decode it.
    Me: But they could drop an artillery shell on it.
    IT: So what? … Oh.

  18. Simon Templar
    Simon Templar October 12, 2021 3:21 pm

    larryarnold’s comment is exactly why we need to try to make privacy measures and encryption the default, used by everyone, everywhere, all the time. Once the NSA (or whoever) gets to the point where

    “There’s only one list. Everybody’s on it.” — Larry Arnold

    then the list is pointless. We may already all be enemies of the state, in the state’s eyes, but we should still try to do everything we can to be enemies with some privacy.

  19. Scott
    Scott October 12, 2021 3:24 pm

    > with regards to various linux distributions above. While certainly not perfect, they’ve been abused and hacked for years and are pretty rugged.

    >They’re just not particularly user friendly.

    They’re friendly enough. They’re just picky about who their friends are. 🙂

    (Linux user since 0.99.something…first distro installed was SLS, from a stack of 5.25″ floppies.)

  20. RC
    RC October 12, 2021 4:15 pm

    > they’ll track who all is doing the transmitting and receiving … and then “ask” one of you for the key.

    Obligatory comic: https://xkcd.com/538/

  21. Arthur Murray
    Arthur Murray October 15, 2021 2:34 am

    Perhaps slightly off-topic, but anyone interested in crypto (and its designs, uses, implementaton and history) might be interested in The Codebreakers by David Kahn. It’s certainly not “light bedside reading” and is a bit math-heavy (so is any worthwhile form of crypto) but is well regarded as the Cryptographer’s Bible. The second edition (pub 1996) has more value than the first edition (pub 1967) because it deals with topics such as public key/private key encryption and the internet, neither of which existed in 1967.

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