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On the Horizon (03/17/06): Talk to Me

web-antennainstallation.jpgCommunication is at the heart of a lot of what we talk about here on WorldChanging, and the last couple of weeks have seen some particularly interesting developments in the world of how we get connected to each other.

Pretty Good Phone Encryption: Probably the biggest news is the beta release of Zfone, the encryption software for voice over IP (VOIP) communications. Written by Phil Zimmerman, the originator of what remains the best publicly-available encryption software around, Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), Zfone sits between the VOIP software and the network, functioning as a seamless encryption envelope for your communications (as long as the person at the other end is also using Zfone). Most VOIP traffic is unencrypted, meaning that someone could listen in on your VOIP conversations with a minimal amount of network admin knowledge; there's even a program that handles the hard parts for you:

It's not as easy to eavesdrop on VOIP as it is to intercept and read e-mail. Phone conversations aren't stored or backed up where an attacker can access them, so the conversations have to be captured as they occur.
But a program available for free on the internet already allows intruders to do just that. Using the tool, someone with access to a local VOIP network could capture traffic, convert it to an audio file and replay the voice conversation. The program is called Voice Over Misconfigured Internet Telephones, a name clearly chosen for its catchy acronym -- VOMIT.

Zfone closes that hole, at least for some VOIP applications. Zfone works with the open standard called "SIP," used by a variety of open- and closed-source VOIP programs -- but not Skype or Vonage, the two big names in VOIP. Zimmerman has submitted Zfone to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) as a possible new open standard, however; if accepted, it would be a fairly easy process for these other VOIP programs to adopt the protocol. Zimmerman will make the code for Zfone available for inspection, but has not yet decided whether to make the project completely open source.

Zfone is out in beta now for MacOS X and Linux, and will be out next month sometime for Windows.

A Room with a (Com)Vu: It's all well and good to use a cameraphone to take pictures and upload them to a blog somewhere, but sometimes what you need for your hand-held Participatory Panopticon fun is real full-motion video. Moreover, having that video come out more-or-less live, as opposed to having to be put up somewhere afterwards, is of particular value when menacing goons (political, corporate, or otherwise) bear down on you. Also, having that video stream work regardless of whether you're connected via WiFi or some higher-speed cellular network would be awfully nice.

Your wish is ComVu's command. Hopefully. ComVu is a new "mobile webcasting" program -- still in testing, but available for download -- allowing users of certain Windows Mobile 5 devices (such as the Treo 700w) to stream video directly from their handsets to a world of web-based viewers. People who want to watch your video just need a basic Windows Media player; it's unclear whether video apps that can play Windows Media files on Linux and other non-Microsoft-compliant platforms will work, too. The streams can go out over a wide variety of common wireless networks.

Windows Mobile 5 devices aren't ubiquitous, but they are common enough that this could end up being a very useful tool for people who want to make sure the whole world is watching. If this works reasonably well, expect Windows Mobile smartphones to be the handheld of choice at your next protest march.

Burn, Baby, Burn: Burning Man is the annual event in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada wherein thousands of people gather for an arts and (for many) debauchery festival. The entire "city" disappears after the event is over; there's no permanent infrastructure at the site. Burning Man attendees set up the whole thing under what can be some pretty adverse conditions. Now some of those folks have banded together to use this knowledge to support people who find themselves in dire situations not of their own choosing.

Burners Without Borders attempts to use the Burning Man experience to help out communities hit by natural disasters. BWB members have been volunteering in tsunami-damaged southeast Asia, and more recently in Gulf Coast states hit by hurricane Katrina. In the latter effort, the Burning Man team has developed a relatively cheap and easy set of tools to provide Internet access, using off-the-shelf wireless routers and solar power systems:

Indeed, as veterans of many years of the Burning Man festival--held in the inhospitable Black Rock Desert where there is no water and dust storms are common--the group has learned how to solve difficult technological problems in rough environs.
Getting their hands on equipment like the Kyocera router and running it off a solar cell has made it possible for the group to once again bring technology into an area that still has few of the conveniences of modern America.
..."It's amazing, and this is the kind of wonder technology that the Internet always promised us," he said. "For groups working in a disaster zone, this should be as much a part of their equipment as generators, chainsaws and camping gear. For people working in a place where normal services have fallen apart, this is absolutely must-have equipment."

The Kyocera router works very much like the "Junxion Box" we talked about last year -- it uses WiFi to let multiple computers connect over a high-speed mobile phone network. Cell phone networks can be restored after a disaster relatively quickly, unlike the land-lines that most traditional Internet access methods use. And, as we saw in the wake of Katrina, post-disaster Internet access can be extremely important, from allowing victims to file for assistance to helping in the search for missing loved ones.

Inveneo Revisited: We first talked about Inveneo, a non-profit that helps developing world communities get connected to global information and communication networks, last July. This week, Inveneo announced that its primary tools -- the Communication Station and Hub Station, out-of-box information and communication network devices running on solar, wind, or bicycle generator power -- are now out of beta and available.

The System enables a network to be built around a cluster of rural locations, enabling the people in these remote locations to use a computer and communicate via phone and Internet to each other and the outside world. The locations are connected wirelessly using long-distance WiFi to a central hub station which manages the broadband local area network and local VoIP calls (using Asterisk) and connects with Internet and telephone networks via satellite, cellular or ISP/PSTN services.
In accordance with Inveneo’s open-source philosophy, and in order to maximize the availability of this ICT solution for remote communities, all design information and software is freely available at Inveneo’s website.

Inveneo is one of the systems we like to think of as "relief and recovery in a box." Other tools in that kit include inexpensive "narrowband" networks, ad hoc software radio networks, "net.relief.kits," reverse-osmosis water purification devices, and combo wind/solar/battery/fuel cell mobile power stations.

Comments (4)

"replay the voice conversation"

If I'm not mistaken there's software out there that allows for someone to do a Search on audio/video content to find key words and phrases. Zfone's encryption would probably throw a nasty wrench in that mechanism.


RE: Searching audio/video content

Just FYI I did some looking, and that seems to be called "audio mining" - here's an example using the Dragon speech recognition engine: http://www.nuance.com/audiomining/

no need to encrypt skype twice:

The reason it does not work with Skype, is that Skype calls are already encrypted.

Frank Shearar:

"The reason it does not work with Skype, is that Skype calls are already encrypted."

Or of course because Skype uses a proprietary communications mechanism, unlike the well-known, well-established SIP protocol suite.


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