FreedomBox: Turnkey Private, Anonymous, Secure Comunication in a Box

Competition Finalist

This entry has been selected as a finalist in the
Citizen Media: A Global Innovation Competition competition.

Project

This innovation also has a Project Page where you can read more about its latest progress.
Go to Project: FreedomBox: Turnkey Private, Anonymous, Secure Comunication in a Box.

Minimal configuration and high tech privacy, anonymity, security on a small low-watt computer for non-expert end users.

About You

Organization: FreedomBox Foundation Visit websitemore ↓↑ hide↑ hide

About You

First Name

James

Last Name

Vasile

About Your Organization

Organization Name

FreedomBox Foundation

Organization Website

Organization Country

United States, NY, New York County

Country where this project is creating social impact

n/a

Is your organization a

Non‐profit/NGO/citizen sector organization

How long has your organization been operating?

Less than a year

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Innovation

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Entry Form title

FreedomBox: Turnkey Private, Anonymous, Secure Comunication in a Box

Select the stage that best applies to your solution

Start-Up (a pilot that has just begun operating)

How long have you been in operation?

Operating for less than a year

THE NEED: Describe the need for your solution and the size/dynamic of the community (ies) you will engage

Inherently, there is an assumption that the Internet can instantly facilitate cohesive communities, however, we have seen that this has not been the case.

In many places, the network is frail. Access is ad-hoc, unreliable or incompatible. Crises render the network unreliable (Egypt or Syria), absent (Sendai) or even treacherous (China). Elsewhere, censorship, privacy invasion and lack of security restrict direct personal communication.

A few web sites carry most internet communication. They steer interaction toward monetizable channels and toll-taking gatekeepers. They give your private communication to hostile governments. Social networking sites sell you, your personal data, and your social graph to advertisers in the guise of creating infrastructure that fosters community.

Digital infrastructure is everywhere inadequate for safe, unmediated direct interpersonal communication. This inhibits cooperation and community organization. It prevents the kind of communities that make momentous social change in the face of powerful opposition and daunting obstacles.

THE SOLUTION: Please explain what your solution offers and how it is innovative. How will you put your solution into the hands of users or beneficiaries? Be specific!

FreedomBox will put in people's own hands and under their own control encrypted voice and text communication, anonymous publishing, social networking, media sharing, and (micro)blogging.

We need a robust, open network architecture to serve popular needs from the pipes up to the user. The solution is decentralized infrastructure so all the people on the network can communicate free of external or artificial barriers.

Much of the software already exists: onion routing, encryption, virtual private networks, etc. There are tiny, low-watt computers known as plug servers to run this software. The hard parts is integrating that technology, distributing it, and making it easy to use without expertise. The harder part is to decentralize it so users have no need to rely on and trust centralized infrastructure.

That's what FreedomBox is: we integrate privacy protection on a cheap plug server so everybody can have privacy. Data stays in your home and can't be mined by governments, billionaires, thugs or even gossipy neighbors.

FreedomBox assembles robust software, makes that software work well together, and configures it to be as easy as possible to use. We provide that software for free under open source licenses to hardware vendors who install the software on low-cost plug servers, which they sell. Other people will download our software for free and install it themselves on their existing hardware (a spare netbook, perhaps).

With FreedomBoxes in their homes, anybody, regardless of technical skill, can easily enjoy secure, private, even anonymous communication!

THE MODEL: Walk us through a specific example of how your solution makes a difference through use of information technology and media

* Egyptian Democracy activists had trouble talking to demonstrators in the streets because the Mubarak regime shutdown parts of the internet as well as many cellular networks. If your internet plug is pulled, the box will use mesh routing to talk to other boxes like it. If any of them can get a packet across the border, they all can.

* The US government famously sought information about internal WikiLeaks communications from Twitter and other social websites. By moving our communication from centralized monoliths to decentralized servers in our homes, we protect our data from government prying.

* Many whistleblowers and dissidents need to anonymously talk to media and the public. With the FreedomBox, they can use VOIP to encrypt telephone calls and can create anonymous web servers over TOR to publish documents. Anonymous instant messaging or microblogging are also possible.

* FreedomBoxes are encrypted web proxies. Boxes in uncensored countries can bounce signals for users stuck behind censorship walls---each one is a tiny crack in the Great Firewall. Chinese users could surf the entire net free from government eavesdropping.

* FreedomBoxes are useful on a daily personal level too. That same proxy technology can scrub web sites of ads and tracking technology as you use them, thus protecting your privacy. FreedomBoxes help you encrypt your email. They also know who your friends are and can back up your data in encrypted form to their FreedomBoxes. You can get your data back even if you don't know your password. Even absent a crisis, privacy matters.

THE MARKETPLACE: Who are your peers and competitors? What challenges could these players pose to your success or growth?

FreedomBox has no competitors. Projects exist to make individual parts of the FreedomBox, but nobody seeks an integrated solution to address a broad range of privacy, anonymity and security needs. Those individual projects are our partners, not our competitors. Their success is vital to our mission, because the open source technology they create powers the FreedomBox.

Peers include Tor, PageKite, Mesh Potato, Identi.ca, Diaspora, Tahoe, Friendika, and Commotion. All these projects have interoperability as their goal, and when they are deployed on computers that are not FreedomBoxes, our users benefit from the network effects.

Projects exist to deploy meshes to disaster sites. This is difficult. Our approach is daily utility so the mesh is present when disaster strikes. Additional mesh capability deployed by such projects would of course improve the network.

There are also entrenched social networking websites that people use despite their lack of respect for privacy. We won't move recalcitrant users off those websites but will instead empower those who want a more secure alternative. FreedomBox will have to interoperate with established services like Facebook and Twitter.

Social Impact

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FOUNDING STORY: We want to hear about your “Aha!” moment. Share the story of where and when the founder(s) saw this solution’s potential to change the world.

Our Aha came from a few sources. Eben Moglen identified centralization of communication infrastructure as the big privacy and anonymity threat. Ian Sullivan and James Vasile were investigating how plug servers suit a range of home applications. All three are passionately interested in returning control of our digital lives to individuals.

Eben pulled these threads together and presented them to the world in a talk entitled "Freedom In the Cloud". It was watched by a couple hundred people that night, and later many thousands via web video. Volunteers translated it into many languages and suddenly the geek world was buzzing.

As the Arab Spring spread, the value of protected, reliable communication was immediately obvious as governments sought to prevent protesters from reaching each other and the world. FreedomBox as Democracy tool was the Aha moment for a lot of our supporters and we gained national media attention that brought us many dedicated team members.

WikiLeaks showed how whistleblowers and dissidents need much the same infrastructure, and the FreedomBox can serve a range of users, from normal individuals to freedom fighters.

Every day is Aha on this project!

Specify both the depth and scale of your solution’s social impact to date

Our project is still in the pilot stage, but we've already had an impact on a lot of people. About 100 people have built prototypical FreedomBoxes: plug servers loaded with existing software to protect their privacy. These boxes do onion routing, strip web traffic of malicious content, provide secure VPNs and do a host of other things, each suited to the needs of its builder.

More broadly, our goals extend beyond creation of FreedomBoxes. Step one is raising awareness of privacy, anonymity and security issues while showing people that technology exists to address those issues.

Many thousands of people have watched speeches by Eben Moglen, James Vasile, Bdale Garbee and a long list of our community members. In those speeches, we have raised awareness of how centralized architecture threatens privacy. And we have helped people understand that if they band together they can do something about it.

The proof of impact is in the thousands of individual donors to our project and the thousands of people who have written to the Foundation and participated in our email lists. We are a young project, but people have responded to us with amazing efforts and enthusiasm.

What is your projected impact within the next 1-5 years? Is your idea replicable? If so, how?

We create open source software. Our workflow upstreams all our technology to the Debian project, which will make it instantly available on the millions of Debian-installed computers worldwide. Anybody can build a FreedomBox from our work. They can use an existing Debian computer, toss it on an old laptop or buy one pre-configured off the shelf fromone of several vendors. We have begun talking to industry partners about putting FreedomBox technology in a variety of small home computers, from set-top cable boxes to home automation devices.

Our goal is to see tens of thousands of FreedomBoxes in a couple dozen countries within five years. Also within 5 years, I would like to see the Freedom Stack provide one major user-facing social application with secure, decentralized communication.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and mark growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact

Working Groups (inc. UX) integrating, producing software, documentation and an early feature release on working hardware.

Six-Month Tasks

Task 1

Develop high-level user experience vision. Begin executing that vision throughout project.

Task 2

Develop common user interface system. Begin integrating software into that system.

Task 3

Continue packaging, testing and developing privacy-respecting software on our hardware.

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone

1.0 Release!

12-Month Tasks

Task 1

Complete a working wireless router with at least three high-quality privacy-respecting features.

Task 2

Polish documentation and translate it into a dozen languages.

Task 3

User-interface testing with naive end-users.

How many people have been impacted by your project?

1,001 - 10,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

Sustainability

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Explain how your company, program, service or product is structured

Non-profit

What barriers have hindered the success of your project to date? How do you plan to overcome these and other challenges as you grow your solution?

User experience is the most difficult and important problem we face, and we have not yet managed to build an expert team of volunteers to tackle it. We seek funding to, among other things, hire innovative designers who can develop a vision of a unified FreedomBox interface and then help us execute that vision.

Integrating disparate software and connecting it to our Freedom Stack (a library that provides easy, interoperable APIs for decentralized private communication) and our UI is difficult. We cannot possibly tackle all the services FreedomBox might offer. Our approach is to encourage community work on the parts people are passionate about while building support to enable that community work to succeed.

How do you see the information-technology and media sectors shifting over the next decade? How will your solution adapt to and/or drive that changing environment?

The inexorable pressure of capital will continue to drive network infrastructure toward centralized, stratified architectures. At the same time, the pressure of competition will continue to require APIs for interoperability. Privacy will increasingly be illegal.

As those structures solidify their gains and extend their empires, we will distribute our boxes and develop our privacy-respecting alternatives. Peoploe will have the tools to seize control over their own digital lives, and the ones who value freedom will take that control.

Failure is not always an option. If your solution fails to gain traction in the next two years, what other applications of the idea could you explore?

FreedomBox is 100% open source, upstreamed into Debian and spread across many other projects. Much of our work will develop without us even if we disappeared tomorrow. Now that we have gathered a community in one place and concentrating on this idea, people will ultimately build FreedomBoxes of one kind or another, with or without us.

Also, our project includes several independent milestones. If our user interface layer is as good as we intend, it will be usable in many other projects. Likewise, if the Freedom Stack is good, it will outgrow us and underpin many other services.

If we have been too ambitious and need to retreat to a simpler idea, we will make simple privacy-oriented wireless routers with a few features and let it grow slowly and chaotically from there.

Expand on your selections, explaining how you will sustain funding

FreedomBox is supported by public donations. We have raised over $100,000 USD from thousands of individuals. Public support for us is enthusiastic and if we produce results we know we public support will continue.

We plan as well to seek foundation and governmental funding. The work we do is very much in the public spirit and has the capacity to produce great change.

A mature FreedomBox with a large install-base will present opportunities for hardware and digital service vendors to build businesses related to the FreedomBox functionality. We believe some of those businesses will support us as an investment in a profitable and continually developing ecosystem.

Tell us about your partnerships

We are supported by the Software Freedom Law Center, where our President, Executive Director and Project Manager are all employed (and given time to work on FreedomBox). We work closely with Tor. We cooperate with dozens of free software projects, sharing people, technology and ideas.

We have close relations with GlobalScale (they make plug servers) and Marvell (they make the chips that go in the servers). Those partnerships will ensure that our code ships pre-installed on consumer goods and that we can design for future editions of those servers.

What type of team (staff, volunteers, etc.) will ensure that you achieve the growth milestones identified in the Social Impact section?

FreedomBox is volunteer-driven. Unpaid staff: President, Executive Director, CTO and Project Manager. Volunteers: dozens of translators, a 5-person technical advisory board, scores of developers and documentarians. All of those people are unpaid.

We have one paid part-time community facilitator. And we need the executive director to become a full time staffer to manage this immense volunteer effort. We will likely need to hire a user experience designer, as that need has not been met with volunteer resources.

Changemakers is a collaborative and supportive space. Please specify any community resources you would need to grow and sustain your initiative. Select all that apply

Investment, Human resources or talent, Marketing or media.

Specify any resources you might offer to support other initiatives. Select all that apply

Human resources or talent, Marketing or media, Research or information, Collaboration or networking, Pro-bono help (legal, financial, etc.), Innovation or ideas.

Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren’t specified within the list

FreedomBox grows out of the Software Freedom Law Center, where we have been providing pro bono legal services to open source projects for the last 6 years. We talk to everybody in the culture/tech sharing world and are always happy to help good ideas reach the right people for collaboration.

Summary

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Define your company, program, service or product in 1-2 short sentences

FreedomBox is turn-key privacy, anonymity and security services and social applications on *your* server in *your* home.

Identify what is innovative about your solution in 1-2 short sentences

Minimal configuration and high tech privacy, anonymity, security on a small low-watt computer for non-expert end users.

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149 weeks ago Maria José García Segura said: Very interesting initiative. Good luck with the project, a big hug. Maria. about this Competition Entry. - read more >
151 weeks ago FreedomBox: Turnkey Private, Anonymous, Secure Comunication in a Box has been chosen as a winner in Citizen Media: A Global Innovation Competition.
153 weeks ago James Vasile said: Yes, I agree. That's a good reason to use https everywhere you can, prefer pgp for email, etc. The case for end-to-end encryption is ... about this Competition Entry. - read more >
153 weeks ago said: You can't just suspect all the users of the net are criminals. about this Competition Entry. - read more >
163 weeks ago Jon Camfield said: Thanks for the thoughtful response - let me attempt to respond in kind. I had missed that the box itself would provide wifi ... about this Competition Entry. - read more >
166 weeks ago said: Bahiyah, I wanted to get at distinctions among the terms used to differentiate types of social networks from each other. ... about this Competition Entry. - read more >
166 weeks ago James Vasile said: One more thing, Jon. You asked about scale, which is a really good question. Scaling up a mesh is tough. The biggest mesh we know of ... about this Competition Entry. - read more >
166 weeks ago James Vasile said: Thanks for the kind words! Basically, onion routing is when you hide the originator of a network connection by hopping it through a ... about this Competition Entry. - read more >
166 weeks ago James Vasile said: We are at the start of our cycle. We're pulling together resources and designing things at a fairly high level. We will release our ... about this Competition Entry. - read more >
166 weeks ago James Vasile said: One of the FreedomBox's aims is to replace centralized social networking sites (Facebook, etc) with decentralized social networking ... about this Competition Entry. - read more >