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Wednesday August 27, 2014

#OpenITP: Keeping the Internet Free and Emailing Private

James Vasile (photo: L.Keyson)

By Lauren Keyson

The Open Internet Tools Project connected NY techno-activists and hacktivits interested in the tech behind preventing censorship surveillance at its inaugural meetup last night. Discussions focused on the rights of privacy communication.

The organization supports software developers making tools to fight censorship. According to James Vasile, OpenITP’s director, “Everyone wants the Internet to be open; the only ones that don’t want to spy on us. They want access to our data and to use our data in ways that we probably don’t want them to. We’re working with an entire ecosystem of free software developers who are making technology that they want to deploy as widely as possible to give people private communications.”

Working directly with free software projects and the activist community, they make use of circumvention tools. Tor conceals web addresses and locations, and makes it difficult to trace users’ activities. Then there’s PGP, encryption software designed for secure data transmission. “The typical user is somebody who cares about privacy, for some reason,” said Vasile. “In many cases that’s an activist. In some cases that’s a person who wants to access the internet without being surveilled by their government, their boss, their neighbor – whoever.

“Everybody has someone in the world that they don’t want to be reading their email,” he said.  “There are plenty of people who are average users in China who would like to be able to read CNN.com. They even want to read it on days that the national firewall doesn’t want to let them read it. As far as email encryption, this could be for somebody who is trying to blow the whistle on something that their company is doing.”

On a personal note, Vasile doesn’t have any major issues that he needs to protect.  “I’m really lucky — most of my need for encryption is just my personal paranoia”

Member Nicholas Merrill is executive director of The Calyx Institute, an organization working to transform the telecommunication industry by designing a set of privacy best practices for Internet and telephone providers. He’s developing tools that commercial telecos can use to transfer ownership and the sovereignty over data from the provider and back to the individual. Merrill wants to  design privacy controls and encryption into the telecom system.  He hasn’t encountered any resistance, but he also hasn’t gone live yet.

He started as one of the first NY Internet providers in the early 90s. In 2004, he received a National Security Letter from the FBI demanding information about one of his clients. He subsequently became involved in a landmark constitutional lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the FBI’s authority to request information with an NSL. “I was under a gag order until 2010, and I was then partially released from it. I’m still 90% under it. But I was able to get the story out.”

Another member, Brian Nunez, is the technology director at Witness.org, a human rights organization that equips and trains grass roots activists with video technology to document human rights abuses and human rights advocacy. In 2012 the organization trained more than 300 people to promote human rights issues with video. “I feel like technology is the great equalizer,” said Nunez. “Our mission used to be to give cameras to the world; now everyone has a cell phone. So it’s not the technology anymore, not the equipment, it’s the strategy – how do you effectively get the media that people are naturally going to collect, and how do you convert that information into something that can really affect the type of change that you want?”