I have started experimenting with BitCoin, which is a relatively new form of digital currency. It’s an interesting idea and design which cuts out all the usual middlemen in online payments through a peer-to-peer network, though the price of that is being unable to obtain a refund of a transaction (e.g. a chargeback).
It does, however, provide a method of performing transactions which are simultaneously transparent and anonymous. Users create BitCoin addresses, which are a hash of relevant data (and appear like this: 19E4GYgVJrpSZ4kDnNB7NxdEFed8U13Aq5). A user can create as many such addresses as they wish, even to the extent of creating a new address for each transaction. So even though an address and associated transactions can be viewed by anyone it is still very difficult to determine the parties involved, if not impossible.
So what’s the point? Well, aside from the currency being unable to be manipulated by the normal state based actors (e.g. the Reserve Bank of Australia or the US Federal Reserve), there are a small, but growing number of people and sites accepting BitCoin payments. There is also currency trading between BitCoin and state currencies, as well as sites like CoinCard which enables purchasing BitCoins through PayPal or converting BitCoins to PayPal funds.
This means that it provides a very real method of exchanging money with no real state based scrutiny. This would certainly appeal to people who may wish to disguise what a certain transaction actually involved or who the parties involved were. While many people may assume that only certain illegal transactions (e.g. drugs and arms trafficking) would benefit from this, there are actually plenty of others. One obvious example of often legal, but potentially embarassing, transactions is the sex industry. Really, though, any transaction in which one or both of the parties involved wants a degree of privacy can benefit from BitCoin.
Some governments might raise the spectre of tax evasion via BitCoin, but that is easily countered. When converting BitCoin currency to one’s local currency and bank account, it becomes income which would be declared like any other and the tax paid on that income. Even without converting the BitCoin currency to the local currency of a recipient it would still be possible using the BitCoin currency markets to calculate the tax owed on any given transaction. Other alternative currencies, like Barter Card, have already found methods of addressing tax related issues and they are not insurmountable.
Given the level of distrust with a number of currencies, particularly following the global financial crisis, BitCoin has the potential to gain more than just a handful of computer geek users. Especially since the software is simple to use and available for Windows, Mac and Linux. The source code is also available to guarantee transparency of the entire system.
I have, of course, installed it and obtained a tiny amount of BitCoin currency using the BitCoin Faucet to see just how easy it is to use. The answer is that it is very easy to use. The example BitCoin address I included in this post (19E4GYgVJrpSZ4kDnNB7NxdEFed8U13Aq5) is an active one I generated using the software. It did not take very long to generate and could be used by anyone to send BitCoin donations or payments to me, not that I really expect that to happen. That, however, is all it takes: providing an address hash to another party to send a payment through.
As with any other online payment method, BitCoin can be configured to accept payments via a web server. Alternatively the free MyBitCoin service can be used to accept online payments through BitCoin on a commerce site quickly and easily. The advantage there is not having to worry about maintaining one’s own BitCoin payment code to integrate with an existing shopping card. The disadvantage is that the BitCoin wallet is stored on the MyBitCoin servers instead of one’s own system, although this disadvantage can be minimised by automatically forwarding payments to a local BitCoin address.
All things considered, I think this particular implementation of a virtual currency has great potential, depending on the degree to which it is adopted.
By now most people will have heard or read about the civil unrest in Egypt and the Egyptian government’s response of shutting down communications networks, including all Internet connectivity. This is, of course, one of the most complete forms of electronic censorship available to a totalitarian state.
Personally I think that any solution in this area will have to involve a return to a real peer-to-peer networking model, rather than the client-server networking model that is so prevalent these days. I suspect that wireless networks will be the transmission path of choice for most such networks, at least as far as maintaining communications within a region affected by a government orchestrated black-out.
I am clearly not the only one who thinks this and fortunately a great deal of work has already been done on this by wireless community groups, like Wireless.org.au. The biggest implementation of such a network, of course, is the One Laptop Per Child program’s wireless mesh network.
The tricky part is getting connectivity out of such a censored region without having to rely on telecommunications carriers or government controlled networks. The level of difficulty in resolving this aspect will almost certainly depend on the physical distance between the censored region and the nearest location able to provide Internet connectivity. Some more obvious and long used methods would have to include satellite and radio transmissions, but a tolerance for data or packet loss would be beneficial.
I do not know whether a wireless mesh network or even some other solution could be deployed in Egypt before the current crisis is resolved, but I do think that making sure the information to rapidly deploy one in the future is essential for defending human rights.
Five people have been arrested in England for their roles in the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks performed by the group calling itself Anonymous, claiming to be defending WikiLeaks and retaliating over the arrest of Julian Assange.
Initially this group formed to protest the activities of the Church of Scientology, both online and offline. They opposed the authoritarian protocols and abuses of Scientology. Seeing some success there, they have moved on to opposing what they view as tyrannical censorship in other realms. In 2009 the target of their ire was the Australian Federal Government over the proposal to introduce mandatory Internet censorship in Australia.
So where is the problem? The problem lies in the hypocrisy of their tactics. A DDoS is nothing if not a tool of censorship, it prevents the free flow of information. The simple fact is that Anonymous are pathetically trying to enforce their own authority on everyone else and are doing so by using the same tactics as those they profess to oppose.
When Anonymous launched a DDoS against Australian Government servers in September of 2009, they did not prevent the Parliament from continuing to work on legislation and policy, including continued work on the censorship proposal. They did, however, risk associating their childish tactics with the work of others seeking to oppose that censorship in a more reasonable and open manner. They also prevented some people seeking information about the censorship proposal in order to rebut it. I know this because I was one of the campaigners whose research efforts were hampered by those attacks. Fortunately enough anti-censorship campaigners, particularly from the EFA, condemned the attacks quickly enough that Senator Conroy was unable to use the attacks as ammunition against the campaign against censorship. Still, there was a risk that that could have happened.
Now Anonymous have turned their attention to acting in the name of WikiLeaks and launching similar attacks against any organisation which has opposed, harmed or withdrawn support (usually of a commercial nature) from WikiLeaks or Julian Assange. They have even gone so far as to say that “Julian Assange deifies everything we hold dear.” In their eyes Assange can never, under any circumstances do or be wrong and that this is their holy crusade. Now what could possibly go wrong there?
Unsurprisingly their targets in this crusade have chosen to fight back. When commercial juggernauts like Mastercard and Visa are attacked they will retaliate with the full force of the law and indeed they have. This is not something which Anonymous have seen before and as they have not really lived up to their name, their attacks being launched by an application run on the PCs of participants, rather than using remotely controlled botnets, they have been caught. Anonymous are not nearly as clever and as powerful as they have deluded themselves into believing and now their members are beginning to pay the price for this. They have been behaving like children throwing a tantrum in an adult world and now they are going to be spanked.
Meanwhile those of us who promote and work for civil liberties around the globe in a way which does not impinge upon the freedom of our opponents will continue as we have always done. We will not miss the distractions of brats like Anonymous. Except, of course, that they’re not just going to go away after a handful of arrests. No doubt the arrests will scare some of them off, but others will want to fight back more. They will view these arrests as tyrannical oppression, rather than seeing it as an obvious consequence of attempting their own censorship regime.
Now, I suppose, it is my turn to find out whether Anonymous are willing to accept criticism online or whether I will find my own server crippled by retaliation for writing this. Well, I believe we should all be free to express our opinions so I hope that will be reciprocated and that any criticism comes in the form of comments rather than a denial of service attack.