Escaping the Surveillance Blackhole
with Free Mobile Computing
0G Manifesto

Alexandre Oliva

Mobile phones have grown into nearly irresistible surveillance devices. Very desirable features are bait that compels us to carry a multitude of data-gathering hardware and software permanently connected to a network that tracks us. The good news is that time is ripe to split them apart, and build ultra portable communicators with all of the desirable features and none of the surveillance. Here's how.

Introduction

Modern "smart" phones are designed for surveillance: multiple cameras, microphones, location tracking, permanent wireless networking, and tons of data-collection apps disguised as useful programs turn them into a blackhole that no personal data can escape.

They also offer such useful functionality that even privacy-aware people find it very hard to resist them: looking up information on the go, getting maps and directions, keeping in touch with friends, family and business partners from anywhere are extremely valuable indeed.

All of these desirable features are currently available on laptops, but their bulk, interaction modes and even power-up times can make their use on the go not quite as convenient. How hard could it be to build an instant-on, touchscreen "laptop" in a phone form factor, so that we could carry it in a pocket rather than in a backpack?

That is part of the solution, but it's not the complete solution: that will require some work on networking, software, and hardware. It's all in-reach and doable today, and I refer to the combination of such lightweight hardware, software and networking, that enable us to escape the surveillance blackhole, as '''0G'''.

Networking

Reachability

You might have long ago concluded that, since you wish to receive calls and messages, you have to be tracked anyway, at the very least by the phone company. Rethink!

Tor, the Onion Router, offers Onion services, that have long been used by e.g. The Pirate Bay to keep itself accessible without disclosing its actual location. My own home server and my laptop can reach each other no matter what network the laptop is connected with.

This is done in a way that does not require tracking or registration with a centralized server: neither the Tor node chosen at random to listen for incoming requests for any of these, nor the Tor nodes that deliver the requests to them, can connect the service with the server or its location. Let's use that to locate each other, then!

It may not be ideal for calls to always go through Tor, because of latency and networking protocols, but once caller can reach callee and they can negotiate a session, they may choose to communicate directly.

Software should be configurable to allow such policies as (a) direct communication only with preauthorized and authenticated parties, (b) all communication through Tor, and (c) redirect and even (d) reject calls from unidentified callers, etc, besides end-to-end encryption policies.

Connectivity

Just having a SIM card, or even a cellular link, is enough for base stations to track you through your phone. Considering that commercial cellular networks require compatible modems to run proprietary software, that grant the network not just the ability to track the user through the phone, but also to control the phone in various undesirable ways, we're probably better off without them entirely.

We may have to work on increasing WiFi coverage, though. The One Laptop Per Child project, for example, hoped to expand the reach of school's networks through mesh networking in their famous XO laptops. The mesh network technology they adopted required non-Free firmware and was a source of no end of headaches to their engineers, so we'd better steer away from that, but maybe ath9k_htc/carl9170 cards with Free firmware could be built into 0G devices and reprogrammed to serve this goal through ad-hoc (vs infrastructure) P2P communication.

Though 0G communicators are encouraged to not have cellular modems built into them, nothing stops phones that do from joining 0G logical networks, even while using a cellular data link.

Laptops and computers equipped with WiFi are also welcome to join 0G logical networks, to share their local connectivity, and to enable their users to interact with users of other 0G devices through calls, messaging, etc.

Software

Existing phones with hardware switches to disable the cellular modem, and running the GNU operating system, are very likely to be excellent platforms for 0G development, testing, and use, and their software is a likely basis for modifications towards 0G.

I don't envision 0G-specific apps, but rather modifications to existing apps, e.g. to use Tor networking and addresses instead of phone numbers, policies settings, network sharing, and MAC address randomization.

User interfaces aimed at use of cellular networks should not be removed, but extended, so that it remains functional on equipment that has built-in or add-on cellular modems.

The possibility of directing calls to legacy phone numbers through Internet-based call forwarding proxies should be present eventually; jmp service is one way to gateway SMS and voice through XMPP and SIP, and at least SMS over XMPP should avoid surveillance over Tor; whether voice does is TBD.

Decentralized, serverless networking apps should certainly be given higher visibility than centralized counterparts, as long as they do not enable user tracking, and built-in support for use of a Freedombox for backups and whatnot (over Tor) should be aimed for.

Apps that are little more than web sites plus local tracking are not welcome. Indeed, we should highly encourage functional websites with graceful degradation when Javascript is not granted permission to run and consume network, memory and cpu. It is unlikely that surveillance businesses will target our system any time soon anyway, and we might even give them additional reasons to respect our freedom or leave us alone, with some strong copyleft userland component.

Hardware

Although existing phones can be used as 0G ones, escaping the surveillance blackhole and realizing the 0G networking vision are more securely achieved with custom Free Hardware running exclusively Free Software. That is not as economically prohibitive as it used to be, and the growing availability of Freedom-respecting hardware further invites to explore the design space and make further convenience improvements and satisfy additional goals.

For example, fitting an EOMA68 board in a smart phone case with touchscreen, Free WiFi, and battery would make for an interesting 0G phone. More so if it's a next-gen board with a RISC-V CPU and a libre, accelerated-3D GPU!

Now, if you're like me, and get home and plug the phone into a USB port of the laptop to recharge and whatnot, what if the laptop was just a case with keyboard, touchpad and screen, and the plugging in connected the communicator not just with the battery and power supply, but also with the larger screen (or screens), keyboard, touchpad, wired network, USB ports, storage, speakers, microphones, webcams, etc?

What if you could connect a (USB3?) video output to the communicator, and then to a projector, to show the slides for your presentation without having to carry even the laptop case around?

We can do this!

I envision coopetition between multiple suppliers in designing and selling handsets, and widespread collaboration in developing the software changes, towards realizing this vision.

One strategy I suggest, highly inspired in the OLPC model, is to build reasonably inexpensive 0G handsets, in robust, cute and repairable cases, like the XO, targeting it at school kids, and selling them in large quantities for governments to offer them in public schools. As in the OLPC plan, the school network gets extended throughout the neighborhood by the meshed handsets, serving the entire community. Governments would not want to subject kids to corporate surveillance, so make them inexpensive enough that kids won't be at significant risk of having their phones stolen from them, and avoid corporate "partners" sabotage, and you should be able to get the network bootstrapped. In communities with broad network coverage, there will likely be more buyers of fancier, higher-margin 0G handsets.

After so many years of GNU development, we are very close to making it usable in the most prevalent computing form factor so that it can liberate people from the chains that existed when it started, and also from the newer threats arising from surveillance capitalism.

Let's make it happen! Join channel #0G on FreeNode IRC, or get in touch through my FSFLA email address, at least until the project finds a home.


Thanks to my friends quiliro, jxself, figosdev, cascardo and sergiodj for early previews and feedback in the preparation of this document.


Copyright 2019 Alexandre Oliva

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this entire document worldwide without royalty, provided the copyright notice, the document's official URL, and this permission notice are preserved.

http://www.fsfla.org/blogs/lxo/pub/0G