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Raspberry Pi network plan for online free-speech role

By Jamillah Knowles
Reporter, Outriders, BBC Five Live

image captionGlobal protest inspired Nadim Kobeissi to work on Cryptocat an encrypted chat program

When the Raspberry Pi computer went on general sale distributors websites were unable to cope with demand.

The £22 ($35) mini-computer which it is hoped will encourage children to take up programming, captured the imagination of many technology enthusiasts.

But developer and security researcher Nadim Kobeissi hopes that it might do something more: bring secure communications to those who need it most, people whose free speech is threatened whether in countries like Syria or in the west.

Mr Kobeissi is a developer of a secure communications program called Cryptocat.

Cryptocat works inside a web browser and enables people to chat online via encrypted instant messaging.

"What makes Cryptocat different to Facebook chat or Google chat is that it encrypts all the data before it gets to the server," Mr Kobeissi told BBC Five Live's Outriders podcast.

Other less secure chat systems may "record what you say and sometimes they have no choice but to share that data with governments," he said.

This isn't the case with Cryptocat according to Mr Kobeissi.

Raspberry servers

He plans to buy Raspberry Pi computers and set them up to work as credit-card sized servers running Cryptocat.

Because of their low-cost and small size they can then be shipped to activists and NGO's in areas where free-speech is difficult.

"This is especially useful for activist organizations, human rights organizations, any group composed of a few dozen people who need to have an internal secure communication service," said Mr Kobeissi.

Small, portable Raspberry Pi computers set up to run Cryptocat, he believes, may be a quick way to build such a service.

Open source

Mr Kobeissi's software is open-source, something which he believes should increase the security of the service as it is reviewed by other developers.

"That's the only way this would work. If I made this closed-source then I might make a mistake in the code and endanger the privacy of people who would depend on it."

Because he has made the code easy for other to scrutinize other experts can check that it is secure.

"I am part of a security community that is very critical, so I have to fulfil high standards," he said.

He also plans to put the software needed to turn the Pi into a chat-server online "so people who already have one of the tiny computers can convert their own into a mini-server".

Active support

Telecomix is a global group that works on free communication. It provides the technology and manuals to stay as secure as possible in countries where the internet is under surveillance.

Stephen Urbach of Telecomix says the Cryptocat servers are generally a good idea, "People all over the world have a need - in the democratic and free countries where I do not trust my government because of data retention as in countries like Syria or the Bahrain where a wrong word can bring you to death. Secure communication can save lives."

Though Urbach recognises that new forms of encryption are a good idea, it is the opportunity to understand computing that will keep people safe, "People need to learn what their computer does, how it works and how the software works.

"Only with this knowledge you will be able to see if you need more security. People need to understand how the internet works to understand why data retention is harmful, how blocked websites still can be accessed and which traces they leave while using the internet."

"This is a good idea for NGOs - but why not use already known decentralized technology like XMPP/Jabber?"

"There is an Off-The-Record plugin for most common and known clients and it is easy as ICQ or any other Instant Messenger. Though this is good, it is yet another tool. Why should we always build new tools when we already have good working tools which use wide spread protocols? As I mentioned before: XMPP/Jabber with OTR. It is common, easy to use and very secure."

Global protest

The current state of global protest and the violent clamping down of freedom of speech in countries like Syria has inspired Mr Kobeissi to work even harder on Cryptocat:

"Cryptocat was definitely influenced by what's happening in the Arab world," he said.

"I myself only immigrated from Lebanon to Canada two years ago."

"But I also want to draw attention to the fact that privacy technologies are becoming a need even here in Western society."

"This isn't just about the Arab Spring, this is about the decaying state of digital privacy worldwide," he said.

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