Daniel Jeffries

@dan.jeffries

How We Build an Unstoppable Peer-to-Peer Tor with a Billion Exit Nodes

Privacy is dead.

With the twin boogeymen of “terrorism” and “protecting the children,” governments have smashed privacy all over the world with terrifying ease.

When even an ostensibly democratic government like the UK passes a dangerous and utterly misguided surveillance and encryption backdoor bill, people are waking up to the brutal realization that privacy in the Internet age is an illusion. In the UK, countless government agencies, big and small, from the halfwit morons at the equivalent of the DMV to the freaking Health Department can now rifle through anyone’s internet browsing history without needing one of those pesky warrants. Other governments do it secretly anyway, with or without the laws to back it up. What could possibly go wrong?

In the US our forefathers fought wars for a lot less.

When I was in my twenties, I imagined the Internet as the great equalizer. It was wild and uncontrollable, a Trojan horse of democracy that would bring light to the dark dictatorships of the world. It was back then that I first conceived of my epic Chinese civil war saga, The Jasmine Wars, where China rises up in a Jasmine Revolution and transforms into the world’s first direct democracy. Surly the internet was the opening shot? When the Party could no longer stop people from speaking freely, it wouldn’t take long for the people to throw off the chains of oppression.

It turns out China had a scary lesson for the world: Censorship works. Freedom and democracy would have to wait. My youthful hopefulness got exposed for what it always was: a naive and childish dream.

To be fair, in many ways the Internet has transformed the world, at least for buying and selling things and spoiling Westworld. Today if you live in Ohio you can buy a toy from Japan almost as easily as you can buy something in a store on Main Street. And that’s something. Oh and don’t forget how it’s transformed reality too. Now instead of us having to listen to boring and depressing real news, we’re free to live in a bubble reality of fake news instead. But at least we can buy stuff.

In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why the Internet has turned into the Panopticon-enabling, botnet-riddled, post-factual, privatized shadow government cyberpunk dystopia that it is today: over-centralization.

Over-centralization is a terrible disease. It leads to rigidity, inefficiency, stifled creativity and resistance to change. For civilizations it leads to death, war and rebellion. Right now, if we’re lucky, we’re living in the early days of the Roman Empire. If we’re not, we’re living during the fall of the Empire.

Over-centralization comes from the mistaken belief that trust is a fixed quality, that once given to a person or organization it’s somehow permanent. But it doesn’t work that way.

Trust is a moving concept.

It’s earned or lost over time. Even if you’re faithful to your spouse for twenty years, if you cheat on them, all that trust burns up in an instant. You went from trusted to not-trusted just like that. A person, organization, company or government can go from impeccably trustworthy to insidious overnight, as the UK government just proved with their complete lack of faith in their citizens. This distrust leads to a spiral of paranoia and fear. If the UK doesn’t trust their citizens, why should their citizens ever trust them?

Now of course, some people say they have nothing to hide and don’t care who looks at their stuff. But folks who say that just haven’t given it much thought. The fact is, if you take ANY person’s private communications and thoughts and expose them to broad public scrutiny someone will find them worthy of scorn, anger, and hatred. How would you like it if pictures of you making love with your significant other leaked onto the nets? Or if everyone got to listen to your greatest fears and desires that you’d shared privately with your closest family and friends? If you’re a conservative, imagine a public lynch mob of the most rabid social justice warriors going over your emails or phone calls line by line. If you’re a progressive, imagine a hard right conservative whose views are as close to modern as witch burning poring over every aspect of your chat messages. EVERYONE has something to hide. And that’s OK. It’s natural. Not everything we do or think or say is for other people to see or judge. But governments have forgotten that. Even worse, people have too, which lets governments get away with it.

Under more oppressive regimes, the Internet has turned into a weapon of social control. It started in China, with the help of a friendly American corporation called Cisco, who sold out the very principles of free enterprise and free speech that allowed them to become a networking powerhouse. China didn’t have the tech to scale their own Internet networks, so they called in Cisco. Instead of a monstrous regime looking to turn the screws on a billion people, Cisco saw an opportunity to sell more stuff. An internal document from the era, detailed in a Wired article and a lawsuit against the company, shows how “the networking giant had marketed its routers to China specifically as a tool of repression.”

China was just getting started. Today, they happily employ millions of censors to transparently edit chat logs, while sock puppeting to manipulate opinion on social media sites. They recently launched a Black Mirror-esque “Social Score” system aimed at keeping their foot firmly on the necks of people who would dare to think differently.

Other repressive regimes and pretend democratic ones have learned that the best way to control the Internet is by centralizing core routing and switching infrastructure in state-run or mega-corporate facilities. Hello cloud! All your data belong to us now! Failing that, they just pass laws demanding backdoor access to people’s private lives or make secret pacts with tech companies to feed all that data back to the mothership without the consent of the governed. Even smaller and less-funded regimes have joined the party. If you can’t afford to fake economic growth enough to have the money to employ two million censors or buy expensive software from happily turncoat American companies, you can always just turn the Internet and cell phones off. During the Arab Spring, now the Arab Winter, countries like Egypt and Syria and Libya did just that. One of the first things the Libyan rebels did, when they captured Tripoli in 2011, was turn the Internet back on and give everyone 40 bucks worth of free text messages.

Governments will only get better at shutting down the Internet. Back in the relatively innocent days of 2010, we saw our irresponsible elected representatives in the United States contemplate passing an Internet “kill switch” law that would allow them to shut down the Internet in the event of a crisis. But why even bother with the charade? You’re not fooling anyone, guys. We know you’ll just shut it down anyway, based on the thinnest and most implausible national security excuse.

Things didn’t stop there. Fast forward to 2016, first year of the apocalypse, where one clever Twitter writer wrote: “I’m starting to think this is the last season of America and the writers are just going nuts.” Not wanting to be left out of the backdoor encryption party in the UK Parliament, our fine representatives keep trying to pass their own anti-encryption laws. And when they fail, they just rewrite them and resubmit them. How long before one of them just gets attached as a rider on a military budget bill that nobody can vote against and it passes despite near universal loathing? I say 2017, maybe 2018 at the latest. Pretty soon we might have the dubious honor of joining Pakistan in banning the use of encrypted VPNs.

All of this is possible because of over-centralization. Concentrated power = abuse. Simple as that. Every single time.

A few corporations dominate local internet access. Think about it. How many options do you actually have to get on the Internet? One, maybe two? Over-centralization. A few services hold all of our communications and track our relationships. 64% of Americans get their fake news from the echo chamber better known as Facebook.

When the Internet flows through only a tiny number of central choke points, it doesn’t take much ingenuity to figure out a way to strangle it. The giant corporate gatekeepers are the first line of attack. Companies are untrustworthy because they have a single goal: profit. Whoever provides the money gets their services. IBM famously helped Germany computerize the Holocaust. The Intercept reached out to nine prominent tech companies and asked whether they would help the new administration build a Muslim registry. Only Twitter said no. The others wouldn’t comment. Now some folks say that their “no comment” doesn’t equal consent, but let’s not bullshit each other here: their silence speaks volumes. Do you even doubt for a second that they will do whatever gets them paid?

It’s time for all of us to face a hard truth. “Centralized trust is an oxymoron.”

That’s one of the core beliefs of the Cicada project, and it’s never been more true.

We’ve got a way to deal with this centralization disease before it kills us all. We can take back the Internet from the people who stole it from us. Even better, we can built it right on the back of the system they subverted.

The Cicada system includes a proposal for an entirely peer-to-peer, Tor style communication system. Right now, Tor browsers, a.k.a. clients, are separate from exit nodes. There are only about 7,000 exit nodes in the world. It’s not enough. There’s a lot resting on the backs of those nodes. If those nodes aren’t up, people get killed or jailed arbitrarily for saying something that subverts “state power.” They’re attackable choke points, as governments have proven again and again.

But what if you had a billion exit nodes?

One of Satoshi Nakamoto’s key insights was recognizing the power of decentralization. He wrote “Governments are good at cutting off the heads of a centrally controlled network like Napster, but pure P2P networks like Gnutella and Tor seem to be holding their own.” Other e-cash systems with central clearing houses were killed off, while Bitcoin has thrived. Decentralization is the Kryptonite of over-centralization.

The Cicada project takes decentralization to its logical conclusion. By unifying clients and exit nodes, the entire network can grow exponentially. Every person who joins the network contributes to the network. Everyone is an entry and exit point. At the ideal stage of the project’s evolution, there are no true “exit” nodes: much like I2P, it’s a closed system of 100% end-to-end encryption. Shutting it down is basically impossible without shutting down the entire Internet. And the project has a plan for that, too: peer-to-peer ad hoc mesh networks that survive even if the powers that be kill the Internet.

As the Declaration of Independence of the United States says, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The Internet has turned against us. It’s become destructive of its original ends, which was to build a highly decentralized open system. It’s time to alter or abolish its structure and remake it in a way that takes back its power for the people.

The Founding Fathers came from a time of authoritarian rule. They understood exactly what it meant to have an unaccountable central authority that could come into your house without a warrant or rifle through your belongings and papers or hold you without trial. That’s why they created a system that rejected those abuses of power. They created checks and balances to keep any one branch of the government from getting too strong, because they knew that too much power always leads to abuse. The system worked great for hundreds of years, but the digital age, terrorism and the rise of mega-corporations provides a new battlefield they could not foresee. Now governments and companies can rifle through your digital papers for any reason at all. At the Cicada project, we believe the Founding Fathers are rolling in their graves.

We’ve forgotten the meaning and importance of privacy today. We’ve given it up because of nebulous and elusive threats. Let’s face it, Bin Laden may have won the war on terror. By bringing down the Twin Towers, with a small group of terrorist fanatics and a tiny budget compared to the massive might of the US military, he made us turn inwards and destroy ourselves. We’ve spilled blood and trillions of dollars in treasure, and we’ve turned against our founding principles. And what has all that spilled blood and treasure gotten us? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We don’t even have more security, which was supposedly the whole point of a never ending war. If we want “make America great again” to be anything more than a hollow campaign slogan, then we have to return to the very principles that made us great: freedom, privacy, checks and balances.

At the Cicada project, we don’t believe other people should do that for us. And guess what? They won’t anyway. If you are waiting for Congress to restore balance, you’ll be waiting until doomsday. As always it us up to the people to save ourselves. That is the Cicada project. It’s an automated Constitution, a digital set of checks and balances that protects privacy and resets the balance of power to its proper place in life. We can wake up now and build the tools necessary to protect privacy for the next few hundred years.

To do that we need to have tools with no choke points. Central points, be they a “trusted” company or organization or just an exit node are exactly the same: weaknesses. They can go from trusted to untrusted instantly. The Cicada project’s architecture is an uncontrollable, point-to-point, fully encrypted network run by individuals and communities. It’s an overlay network, running right on the back of the Internet. It includes everything from a decentralized ID, to decentralized DNS and more. And if the Internet goes down? It’s designed to run completely peer-to-peer, a la FireChat.

Hostile entities can corrupt, monitor, and block 7,000 Tor exit nodes, but how do you block ten million or a billion end nodes? You don’t.

Let the entire network radiate with end nodes.

We can restore balance to the world. But we need to do it before it’s too late. Join the project. Save the future.

The future is not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.

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If you love my work please do me the honor of visiting my Patreon page because that’s how we change the future together. Help me disconnect from the Matrix and I’ll repay your generosity a hundred fold by focusing all my time and energy on writing, research and delivering amazing content for you and world.

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A bit about me: I’m an author, engineer and serial entrepreneur. During the last two decades, I’ve covered a broad range of tech from Linux to virtualization and containers. You can check out my latest novel, an epic Chinese sci-fi civil war saga where China throws off the chains of communism and becomes the world’s first direct democracy, running a highly advanced, artificially intelligent decentralized app platform with no leaders. You can also check out the Cicada open source project based on ideas from the book that outlines how to make that tech a reality right now and you can get in on the beta.

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