This open source private server is as easy to use as a smartphone and can ease your privacy concerns

Recently, while visiting Swecha, a non-profit in Hyderabad that is bringing social change with free and open source software and is part of the Free Software Movement of India, I came to know about FreedomBox. Maintained by the non-profit FreedomBox Foundation that runs on donations, the FreedomBox is a revolution in itself. This project’s flagship product, costing just US$100, uses various open hardware components, runs on free operating system Debian OS and works as a secure personal server for distributed social networking, email and audio-visual communications.

This, in simple words, means it can provide uninterrupted video streaming of high quality live programmes in a closed space where all the users can interact with each other. Being a tiny little device, a lightweight version of Debian OS is generally installed in a micro-SD card hidden in a corner of the Raspberry Pi. FreedomBox can also run on a computer. So when one needs to use it in a remote location that has zero access to the Internet, many people can use it seamlessly and access anything available on the server. Be it a mobile device or a TV, anything could be connected to the network for multiple kinds of communication and sharing.

The volunteers at Swecha are currently working on a prototype that could be used to provide classroom experience to an entire village where either recorded sessions of classes or live sessions could be made available to people. They are also going to take it to the level of helping farmers irrigate their farms even in bad weather, all without any Internet connectivity.

The manual in the FreedomBox’s wiki says:

“FreedomBox runs in a physical computer and can route your traffic. It can sit between various devices at home such as mobiles, laptops and TVs and the Internet replacing a home wireless router.

By routing traffic, FreedomBox can remove tracking advertisements and malicious web bugs before they ever reach your devices. FreedomBox can cloak your location and protect your anonymity by “onion routing” your traffic over Tor. FreedomBox provides a VPN server that you can use while you are away from home to keep your traffic secret on untrusted public wireless networks and to securely access various devices at home.”

Just like any other online file-sharing service, FreedomBox helps in local file-sharing and storage of data, provided the server has enough space for the same. One can compromise with not having Dropbox or Google Drive while being able to download everything in seconds, much faster than the regular Internet which often drains your monthly Internet pack. FreedomBox provides instant messaging and a truly secure voice conference calling that works on low bandwidth while providing high quality. FreedomBox has a blog and wiki to let you publish your content and collaborate with the rest of the world. Coming soon is a personal email server and federated social networking using GNU Social and Diaspora, providing privacy-respecting alternatives to Gmail and Facebook.

Eben Moglen is the founder of FreedomBox Foundation and law professor at Columbia University, While co-presenting with Moglen at the Columbia Law Conference New York City on October 30, Sunil Mohan Adapa from the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, India, who has been associated with the FreedomBox project for the last 18 months, demonstrated how easy it is to set up a FreedomBox. He connected it to an internet network cable and a power cable, turned the device on and said that’s all it takes to start it! “It does a whole bunch of activities and recognises what kind of hardware it is running on and ultimately provides a wifi network. It is like a wifi router we have at home.

It is rather a replacement for a wifi router. But it does more… It can also route the traffic via various other computers and devices ensuring an enhanced level of privacy”, Adapa emphasised.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Adapa and Eben Moglen–

What are the kind of problems that exist which FreedomBox is trying to solve?

Adapa: The free software community woke up to hard facts about privacy and mass surveillance in the past few years. There are a lot of people working on distributed and federated technologies that will fix these problems at a fundamental level. Also, many technologies like email and Jabber are already decentralised but are being avoided by regular users in favour of on-line services such as Gmail. This is plainly being done for convenience and simplicity. FreedomBox solves this problem by making these technologies easy to setup and manage. It is unthinkable now for an average Gmail user to setup their own email server, configure spam records, screen for viruses and take backups, even though for that there exists software. FreedomBox is simple and easy to setup and maintain, just like a smartphone, and yet, provides all the services that these online companies have gotten us addicted to. It acts as a delivery vehicle for the technologies of decentralisation. Look at the problems that exist in rural India, many villages even struggle for electricity. With setting up of a long-range WiFi equipment, FreedomBox could make it possible to provide them services like free Internet and VoIP communications. A cluster of villages could be connected using point-to-point radio links. A lot more could be made possible. The project is at a very nascent stage at this moment.

I am curious to know to if the hardware of FreedomBox is as “free” as its software.

Adapa: There is certainly a subconscious effort to keep the entire system free, as in freedom of knowledge, ensuring use of both free and open hardware and software. We have the following hardware supported for FreedomBox:

Cubietruck (or the Danube edition)
BeagleBone Black
Raspberry Pi
Raspberry Pi 2
VirtualBox and KVM virtual machines
Any machine that can run Debian
Whilst all of these run fully free software, some of the firmware that runs on some of these devices is proprietary as the alternative free software is not available. So, of these, only three single board computers are recommended because they run on completely free software and free firmware:

BeagleBone BLACK
Of these, the BeagleBone BLACK is also open hardware. Meaning that the blueprints required to make a similar device with modifications using a different manufacturer are all available. In the pipeline is support for another open hardware device called A20 OLinuXino LIME2 from Olimex.

What was initially on your mind while beginning this product– third world countries, hacker clubs, indie students/professionals working on open hardware?

Moglen: Recalling what I spoke in my talk ‘Freedom in the Cloud’ at New York University early in 2010, the idea of starting FreedomBox came from the observation of seeing how private information is becoming public without even one’s notice. A big telco like Sprint has admitted that they have a website where anyone with a law enforcement ID can find someone’s real time location, just like that. How about the other companies? We don’t know as they haven’t told us! With such service providers, you also get another service called “spying”, custom-made advertisement in your mailbox that is made possible by created by semantic analysis of your email content. These few things are examples of many other such rattraps many fall a prey to. [Richard] Stallman was right, it’ the “freedom”. (Stallman is an activist and author of Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software.) This device has it all.

On my visit to Swecha, the student interns currently working on the product told me that they are planning to install a few in the nearby villages where access to internet is a dream. Hopefully FreedomBox could help them learn to use live video streaming from somewhere else on the network. Could you please share any such stories (of change) that FreedomBox is going to bring?

Moglen: The folks in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana in India will have more to say about the real world current deployments of FreedomBox. But I can say that FreedomBoxes–which are really just very inexpensive appliances made from single-board or reclaimed computers running free software to provide secure and private communications to people–are going to play five main roles beginning soon:

1. As routers replacing standard wifi routers in homes and businesses, creating networks with privacy protection and secure interconnection, as businesses have had within ward-facing web proxies and VPNs, and doing ad removal and bug protection for web surfing everywhere.;

2. In the same configuration, as low-end secure servers offering public services to the Net from which any household receiving a wifi signal can make itself a publisher and income earner on the Web;

3. As wifi client dongles cable-connected to laptops and other computers, to provide fully mobile secure communications over public wifi networks for travellers of every kind;

4. As boxes kept in secure locations that provide secure organisational IT (Tor-based hidden wiki, secure text messaging over encrypted XMPP, secure multi-party voice chat using Mumble, secure shared calendaring, etc.) for any kind of social entity, church group, family, club, political party cell, law practice, etc.; and

5. As village-level communications routers, joined by WiMAX or other medium-range radio from village to village, to provide alternative telecommunications networks in developing areas that don’t require many or any backhauls through commercial telecommunications networks in order to connect people to the people they need to reach. Using OpenBTS, which we will be including in FreedomBox soon, and with cheap additional hardware, a FreedomBox can talk directly to GSM handsets, to provide alternatives to commercial mobile services.

Posted by on March 2, 2016. Filed under Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.