Netizen Tech: Cryptocat and Commotion


Nadim Kobeissi showcases his Cryptocat application at the Internet at Liberty 2012 conference. Photo credit Tom Risen

After a busy month of speaking at Internet freedom conferences about his encrypted chat room Cryptocat’s ability to counter government surveillance, U.S. border security detained innovator Nadim Kobeissi and questioned him about the encryption technology.

While Kobeissi switched planes in the United States en route to Montreal on June 6 after attending the Human Rights and Technology Conference summit in Rio de Janiero, U.S. security officers confiscated his passport for an hour before questioning and releasing him the same day.

The Lebanese-born hacker and programmer tweeted about his detention after being released, and responded to his followers about the attention he received.

Open Technology Institute’s Policy Analyst James Losey, who also attended the Rio de Janiero conference, wrote an article on Slate about a trend in the detention of Internet freedom activists following speaking engagements. Here is an excerpt:

In late October 2011, Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent Egyptian blogger, was arrested as he returned from the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference. The charge: inciting violence toward the military during riots on Oct. 9, 2011. He was released nearly two months later. That same month, Jacob Appelbaum, a core member of the Tor Project who has also volunteered with Wikileaks, was detained in Iceland after speaking at the Internet and Democratic Change, an event sponsored by the Swedish government.

And just last month, Thai blogger Chiranuch Premchaiporn, aka Jiew, went from a speaking engagement at Google’s Internet at Liberty conference in Washington to a sentencing hearing. She faced up to 20 years in prison because comments posted on her website by readers were deemed insulting to the king. In the end, she was fined the equivalent of $630 and received an eight-month suspended sentence.

During the recent Internet at Liberty 2012 conference, Kobeissi showcased the privacy tool intended to counter censorship and surveillance by governments seeking to stifle dissent.

Even faced with surveillance risks Kobeissi said journalists and activists still use Facebook instead of encrypted

Cryptocat mini-computer. Photo credit Nadim Kobeissi.

networks “even if their lives depend on it,” so he developed Cryptocat to make encrypted instant messaging and content sharing more compatible with social media and phones.

“With the legislative trend that North American states are adapting it’s becoming more of a worldwide problem. You need to have encrypted secure communications everywhere,” Kobeissi said at the Internet at Liberty conference.

Legislation that could increase government oversight of the Internet is under debate in Canada, and cybersecurity legislation being reviewed in the U.S. Congress could also compromise data privacy. Cryptocat is under development but is already being used for 300 conversations each day, Kobeissi said. Since the open source program code is browser based, one development challenge Kobeissi faces is how to deliver the encryption code safely. Along with a Cryptocat mini-computer Kobeissi is developing applications for Android and the Apple iPhone this summer, he said.

Government crackdowns and surveillance aimed at activists during the Arab Spring inspired a wave of other innovations, such as the Open Technology Institute’s Commotion Wireless mesh network program. Inspired by government Internet blackouts in Egypt, Commotion will be an improved version of open source wireless mesh networking, which builds an Internet infrastructure out of any smart phone, laptop or router with a Wi-Fi card.

An independent network of devices using the program creates a patchwork of signals the size of a room or vast as a city filled with smart phones, said Josh King, lead technologist at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute [OTI]. Along with creating a network outside of government utilities that are vulnerable to surveillance the Commotion project aims to make some security improvements to existing technology used to sidestep government Internet blackouts or censorship firewalls vulnerable to network surveillance. The project is funded with support from the U.S. government and is already being tested in “hackathons” in Washington, D.C., and Detroit, King said.

“Technologies like [virtual private networks] and [proxy servers] are incredibly useful, but they require access to a network in order to operate,” King said. “This is possibly a complementary tool to other circumvention technologies that are already out there.”

By designing Commotion with built-in encryption, the mesh network would not compromise anonymity the way other connections share a picture of the network with every connected device. Adding graphics for user interface and instructions will also make Commotion simple enough for everyday use, King said.

“None of these technologies were designed with security in mind, because they were designed by hackers to communicate in their own communities,” King said.

While the project is still being developed the Commotion home page has router images, downloadable clients available for testing and other information.

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