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Update: Decentralize the Network, Own and Protect Your Data

In order to fight against unlawful detention, it's important to make sure that the key data/resource (files, pictures, videos, contact lists, etc.) is owned and shared by the end-users. We need to decentralize the current network hierarchy.

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Scenario with Current Centralized Network Hierarchy:
  • Bob and Alice are two active human rights activists in China. Bob contacts Alice in a daily bases via social network.
  • Mark is Bob's attorney, they exchange emails all the time. Sometime, Bob will share some important evidences with Mark through online file-sharing system like Dropbox.
  • Bob is also working closely with AMNESTY International, he helps AMNESTY collecting information regarding the human rights issues in China. Bob shares the information with AMNESTY via email and online file-sharing system.
  • Bob usually shares his location with his family and friends by using social network.

After a long time spying on Bob, the government agents brake into Bob's home, and took him away. Usually, following immediate actions are taken by the government agents in terms of collecting and controlling data/information:
  • They will immediately take away Bob's computer and cellphone. Collection all the local information which can used to agains Bob.
  • They will check the Email Server to collect Bob's email contents and contact list, so probably they will find out Alice's information. 
  • They will check the File-sharing Server to collect all the data/information can be used to agains Bob. And remove all the data/information can be potentially used by Bob's supporters (Mark the attorney and AMNESTY) to help Bob.
  • They will also check the Social network Server to locate Bob and his group's recent activities. 
  • Finally, they will shut down the communication between the people around Bob by bring down certain numbers of different kind of servers, to make sure no one knows where Bob is.

What does this scenario tell us?
  • Local file is not safe, it is easy to be captured if the individual is facing an unlawful detention.
  • Under the centralized network hierarchy, the data stored/shared online is not safe, either. Actually, it's even worse. Mass data can be obtained easily.
  • All the communication around certain individual can be easily shut down by bring down the specific servers.
  • In this hierarchy, it's always easy for the powerful side (in this case, the government agents) to collect and control the key data resource, and use it to agains individuals. It's almost impossible for the individuals and their supporters (in this case, Mark, the attorney, and AMNESTY International) to access the critical data/information to help the individuals who's facing the unlawful detention.

How can we turn this situation around?
In order to restore the power back to the end user. We have to decentralize the current network hierarchy. It is definitely not a easy goal to achive. 
Fortunately, four talented young programmer from NYU's Courant Institute have been gathering a community to work on a open-source project called Diaspora, which I believe is the first step towards our goal here.
According to the Diaspora team " Diaspora aims to be a distributed network, where totally separate computers connect to each other directly, will let us connect without surrendering our privacy. We call these computers ‘seeds’. A seed is owned by you, hosted by you, or on a rented server. Once it has been set up, the seed will aggregate all of your information: your facebook profile, tweets, anything. We are designing an easily extendable plugin framework for Diaspora, so that whenever newfangled content gets invented, it will be automagically integrated into every seed"
This is not a job only belongs to the computer geeks, we can all be part of it by changing our own attitude and behavior when we are using internet services. It's time for everybody to realize that we should own our online data and identity. It's time to protect our own data and spread the word.

Scenario with Decentralized Network Hierarchy:
I really like  Ana Cecilia Santos and  Anne-Laure Fayard's concepts "Amnesty International Vending Machine / Info Hub" and "Amnesty International III Shift Van". Both of them really inspired me how this Decentralized Network concept can be applied. 
For example, according to Ana's "Info Hub" concept, "There could be a possibility of then retrieving back into the Amnesty Vending Machine /Info Hub (via USB or Bluetooth, etc), all the documented material from the locals, anonymously. Amnesty would pass this info on to relevant sources, for the advantage of the community, since they don't have access to computers and a way to upload the videos online or to Media entities". In this case, the Info Hub is most likely placed at a public place, which allows people access it easily. So how to secure the data in the Info Hub will become really critical. Following criterias must be considered:
  • Data can not be stored in the local drive inside each Info Hub
  • Data can not be stored in some centralized public server run by any commercial companies
  • Amnesty International and the relevant sources should the access to the data
To meet all the criterias above, a decentralized network is a required. In a decentrialized network hierarchy, all the Info Hub is just a data input node, no data is really stored locally. Instead of sending all the data to some specific servers run by a commercial company (for example Yahoo) or an organization (for example Amnesty International), all the data will distributed encryptedly into a huge number of private computer/server in the network. Of course, organizations like Amnesty International are granted with the authority to access these computer/server. So even someone tries to break the "Info Hub" down, and he will get nothing, and since there won't be any log files exist inside the "Info Hub", it will be impossible for him to track where the data has been sent.

This concept is highly inspired by the guest speak " Freedom in the Cloud" by Professor Eben Moglen from Columbia University and the Diaspora Project

Based on your feedbacks
Since I posted this concept, so many of you have been giving me great feedbacks, which have been forcing me to think this concept again and again. I'm going to summaries some of the discussions from the comment area and add some more thoughts have been in my mind for a while.

1. Is this concept trying to encourage people to get rid of local storage and move all the data to a decentralized network?
A: No. this concept is aiming your existing online activities, like exchange emails, share files and all kinds of data sharing via social network. We are not trying to convince people to totally abandon local data. We are trying to change the current network hierarchy to allow people to really own their online data. 

2. Is this concept only applied to computers with advanced hardware?
A: I mentioned that every computer should be able to be a server, so we don't really need to go through all the servers from those big companies or organizations to conduct our online activities. However, own server does not mean the computer needs advanced hardware. Actually, it does not have to be a computer at all. Tablet, smartphone, Anne-Laure's Shift Van, Ana's Vending Machine, all of them can be treat as a server.

3. Is this network going to chop my files into small pieces and distribute them to lots of servers?
A: This can be one of the scenarios, but definitely not the only option. The goal here is to allow users to really own the data, which means you have the right and power to determine how to share your file, and to whom share your file. You can chop your data and distribute them or have several copies of the original file on your friends servers and don't leave anything on your own computer.

4. Data encryption over the network?
A: I did not mention this in the original post. Thanks to  Marlon Bishop's comment, data encryption (example:  256 AES public key encryption) is a must have to improve the security of all your online activities.

5. Does this network automatically endanger everyone who's using it?
A: Generally speaking, this network hierarchy is trying to empower the end-users of the network from taking the power from the "big guys" who owns the data in current network hierarchy. Personally, I cannot think of any other kind of network hierarchy can be more dangerous then the existing one. Yes, everyone who's using the network can be in danger, however this decentralized network can make it harder and harder to track all the data traffics, since all the end-users have the ability to determine where to data goes, and what data will be left in local. 

6. Is it very hard to setup this network?
A: Based on the Diaspora project, to setup this network should be really simple and easy to do. All you need is a open-source application, which can be easily installed on all kinds of devices with different operating system. It can even be a plug and play application, which means, you can have the code in your small flash drive or in your smartphone and plug it to any device you can find anywhere to setup your node of the network, and complete your online activities on that device. Unplug it, then you are good to go without leaving any trace. This kind of mobility is really important in terms of helping the people who's in dangers and people around them.

At the end, I would love to thank all of you guys who's participate in this challenge, without you, there is not chance we can build this concept up. Thank you!

What kind of resources are needed to get this idea off the ground and/or support it over time?

If DIASPORA can approve it's value and achive the goal the team promised. We should be able to expect more implementation following up with a fairly low cost and an easy to apply infrastructure / interface.

My Virtual Team

Anne-Laure Fayard Vincent Cheng Ana Cecilia Santos Jason George Arjan Tupan Vesna Misanovic Johannes Söllner: Marlon Bishop Ashwin Gopi Alan Hyman Abhishek Ramakrishnan


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Hello Lei, Great concept!, I´m just a little bit worried about this hierarchy of information working against the track of essential information to actually liberate the accused individual, making data hard to track could potentially make it harder for family members to track the bad guys as well?, I believe a decentralized hierarchy of information sharing could potentially deteriorate Internet´s saftey as well. In your proposed scenario it makes sense for information to be encrypted and hard to track, but what if the resolution of the case or proof of inocence depended on someone elses information being available and easy to track?, would like to hear your thoughts around this idea... Thanks and great work!

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