Google Discovers Google+ Servers Are Still Running

Google is pulling the plug on their social network, Google+. Users still have the better part of a year to say their goodbyes, but if the fledgling social network was a ghost town before, news of its imminent shutdown isn’t likely to liven the place up. A quick check of the site as of this writing reveals many users are already posting their farewell messages, and while there’s some rallying behind petitions to keep the lights on, the majority realize that once Google has fallen out of love with a project there’s little chance of a reprieve.

To say that this is a surprise would be disingenuous. We’d wager a lot of you already thought it was gone, honestly. It’s no secret that Google’s attempt at a “Facebook Killer” was anything but, and while there was a group of dedicated users to be sure, it never attained anywhere near the success of its competition.

According to a blog post from Google, the network’s anemic user base isn’t the only reason they’ve decided to wind down the service. A previously undisclosed security vulnerability also hastened its demise, a revelation which will particularly sting those who joined for the privacy-first design Google touted. While this fairly transparent postmortem allows us to answer what ended Google’s grand experiment in social networking, there’s still one questions left unanswered. Where are the soon to be orphaned Google+ users supposed to go?

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Unphotogenic Lighting As A Feature

Have you ever taken a picture indoors and had unsightly black bars interrupt your otherwise gorgeous photo? They are caused by lighting which flickers in and out in its normal operation. Some people can sense it easier than others without a camera. The inconsistent light goes out so briefly that we usually cannot perceive it but run-of-the-mill camera phones scan rows of pixels in sequence, and if there are no photons to detect while some rows are scanned, those black bars are the result. Annoying, right?

What if someone dressed that bug of light up as a feature? Instead of ruining good photos, researchers at the University of California-San Diego and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found out what different frequencies of flicker will do to a photograph. They have also experimented with cycling through red, green, and blue to give the effect of a poorly dubbed VHS.

There are ways an intelligent photographer could get around the photo-ruining effect with any smartphone. Meanwhile DSLR cameras are already immune and it won’t work in sunlight, so we are not talking about high security image protection. The neat thing is that this should be easy to replicate with some RGB strips and a controller. This exploits the row scanning of new cameras, so some older cameras are immune.

FOSSCON 2018: Developing the FreedomBox

The modern Internet can be a dangerous place, especially for those who might not have the technical wherewithal to navigate its pitfalls. Whether it’s malware delivered to your browser through a “drive-by” or online services selling your data to the highest bidder, its gotten a lot harder over the last decade or so to use the Internet as an effective means of communication and information gathering without putting yourself at risk.

But those are just the passive threats that we all have to contend with. What if you’re being actively targeted? Perhaps your government has shut down access to the Internet, or the authorities are looking to prevent you from organizing peaceful protests. What if you’re personal information is worth enough to some entity that they’ll subpoena it from your service providers?

It’s precisely for these sort of situations that the FreedomBox was developed. As demonstrated by Danny Haidar at FOSSCON 2018 in Philadelphia, the FreedomBox promises to help anyone deploy a secure and anonymous Internet access point in minutes with minimal user interaction.

It’s a concept privacy advocates have been talking about for years, but with the relatively recent advent of low-cost ARM Linux boards, may finally be practical enough to go mainstream. While there’s still work to be done, the project is already being used to provide Internet gateways in rural India.

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Tiny Websites have no Server

A big trend in web services right now is the so-called serverless computing, such as Amazon’s Lambda service. The idea is you don’t have a dedicated server waiting for requests for a specific purpose. Instead, you have one server (such as Amazon’s) listening for lots of requests and on demand, you spin up an environment to process that request. Conceptually, it lets you run a bit of Javascript or some other language “in the cloud” with no dedicated server.  https://itty.bitty.site takes this one step farther. The site creates self-contained websites where the content is encoded in the URL itself.

Probably the best example is to simply go to the site and click on “About itty bitty.” That page is itself encoded in its own URL. If you then click on the App link, you’ll see a calculator, showing that this isn’t just for snippets of text. While this does depend on the itty.bitty.site web host to provide the decoding framework, the decoding is done totally in your browser and the code is open source. What that means is you could host it on your own server, if you wanted to.

At first, this seems like a novelty until you start thinking about it. A small computer with an Internet connection could easily formulate these URLs to create web pages. A bigger computer could even host the itty.bitty server. Then there’s the privacy issue. At first, we were thinking that a page like this would be hard to censor since there is no centralized server with the content. But you still need the decoding framework. However, that wouldn’t stop a sophisticated user from “redirecting” to another — maybe private — decoding website and reading the page regardless of anyone’s disapproval of the content.

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Social Networking Robot Actually Respects Privacy

[Fribo] the robot is a research project in the form of an adorable unit that hears and speaks, but doesn’t move. Moving isn’t necessary for it to do its job, which is helping people who live alone feel more connected with their friends. What’s more interesting (and we daresay, unusual) is that it does this in a way that respects and maintains individuals’ feelings of privacy. To be a sort of “social connector and trigger” between friends where every interaction is optional and opt-in was the design intent behind [Fribo].

The device works by passively monitoring one’s home and understands things like the difference between opening the fridge and opening the front door; it can recognize speech but cannot record and explicitly does not have a memory of your activities. Whenever the robot hears something it recognizes, it will notify other units in a circle of friends. For example, [Fribo] may suddenly say “Oh, one of your friends just opened their refrigerator. I wonder what food they are going to have?” People know someone did something, but not who. From there, there are two entirely optional ways to interact further: knocking indicates curiosity, clapping indicates empathy, and doing either reveals your identity to the originator. All this can serve as an opportunity to connect in some way, or it can just help people feel more connected to others. The whole thing is best explained by the video embedded below, which shows several use cases.

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Edward Snowden Introduces Baby Monitor for Spies

Famed whistleblower [Edward Snowden] has recently taken to YouTube to announce Haven: an Open Source application designed to allow security-conscious users turn old unused Android smartphones and tablets into high-tech monitoring devices for free. While arguably Haven doesn’t do anything that wasn’t already possible with software on the market, the fact that it’s Open Source and designed from the ground up for security does make it a bit more compelling than what’s been available thus far.

Developed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Haven is advertised as something of a role-reversal for the surveillance state. Instead of a smartphone’s microphone and camera spying on its owner, Haven allows the user to use those sensors to perform their own monitoring. It’s not limited to the camera and microphone either, Haven can also pull data from the smartphone’s ambient light sensor and accelerometer to help determine when somebody has moved the device or entered the room. There’s even support for monitoring the device’s power status: so if somebody tries to unplug the device or cut power to the room, the switch over to the battery will trigger the monitoring to go active.

Thanks to the Open Source nature of Haven, it’s hoped that continued development (community and otherwise) will see an expansion of the application’s capabilities. To give an example of a potential enhancement, [Snowden] mentions the possibility of using the smartphone’s barometer to detect the opening of doors and windows.

With most commercially available motion activated monitor systems, such as Nest Cam, the device requires a constant Internet connection and a subscription. Haven, on the other hand, is designed to do everything on the local device without the need for a connection to the Internet, so an intruder can’t just knock out your Wi-Fi to kill all of your monitoring. Once Haven sees or hears something it wants you to know about it can send an alert over standard SMS, or if you’re really security minded, the end-to-end encrypted Signal.

The number of people who need the type of security Haven is advertised as providing is probably pretty low; unless you’re a journalist working on a corruption case or a revolutionary plotting a coup d’etat, you’ll probably be fine with existing solutions. That being said, we’ve covered on our own pages many individuals who’ve spent considerable time and effort rolling their own remote monitoring solutions which seem to overlap the goals of Haven.

So even if your daily life is more John Doe than James Bond, you may want to check out the GitHub page for Haven or even install it on one of the incredibly cheap Android phones that are out there and take it for a spin.

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DIY Air Cannon Snags Drones from the Sky

Who hasn’t had the experience of a pesky drone buzzing around that family picnic, or hovering over a suburban backyard where bikini-clad daughters are trying to sunbathe in peace? A shotgun used to suffice for such occasions, but with this compressed-air powered drone catcher, there’s no need to worry about illegally discharging a firearm to secure some privacy.

Before the comment line lights up with outrage, the above scenarios are presented entirely in jest. We do not condone the use of force on a drone, nor do we look favorably on those who use drones in a way that even hints at an invasion of privacy. We can all get along, and even though we hope [Make It Extreme]’s anti-drone gun will never be used in anger, it’s still a neat build that gives us lots of ideas. The rig is essentially four coaxial narrow-bore compressed-air cannons, each launching a slug attached to the corner of a lightweight net. A fairly complex set of linkages sets the spread of the barrels, and a pair of old oxygen tanks serve as reservoirs for the compressed air. A fast-acting dump valve is tripped by an interesting trigger mechanism mounted to a complicated stock and grip; we’d have liked to see more on the fabrication of that bit. The video below shows a test firing that results in a clean takedown of a drone, although we doubt the owner of the quad would characterize it as such.

This build is a bit of a departure from [Make It Extreme]’s usual fare of DIY tools like a shop-built vise or big belt sander, or their unusual vehicles like an off-road hoverboard. But it’s always great to watch a good fabrication video, no matter what the subject.

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