How The Runaway Success Of A Tiny $25 Computer Could Become A Big Problem For Oppressive Regimes

from the hidden-benefits dept

The Raspberry Pi is a $25 credit-card sized computer that has succeeded in making GNU/Linux not just newsworthy, but downright desirable. The initial batch of boards sold out in minutes, and eager customers crashed the server where it was being sold.

The original vision of the Raspberry Pi was to promote amateur programming and to re-invigorate the teaching of computing in the UK (and elsewhere) by providing a very low-cost and easily hackable system. Naturally, though, its open source code allows it to be applied in many different situations. Here, for example, is a plan to create a secure chat system for activists that can be used in countries where communications are routinely under surveillance, using a program called Cryptocat:

Because of their low-cost and small size they can then be shipped to activists and NGO’s in areas where free-speech is difficult.

“This is especially useful for activist organizations, human rights organizations, any group composed of a few dozen people who need to have an internal secure communication service,” said Mr Kobeissi.

Small, portable Raspberry Pi computers set up to run Cryptocat, he believes, may be a quick way to build such a service.

An interesting consequence of Moore’s Law and the ready availability of free software is that powerful computers can now be produced for just tens of dollars, and in an extremely small package. The low cost means that organizations supporting activists can send in many such systems to countries with human rights problems, and replace them if they are discovered and confiscated or destroyed. The size makes it much easier to import them discreetly, as well as to conceal them in countries that try to keep computing under tight control.

And it’s not just the Raspberry Pi that will be making this possible. Its high-profile success is likely to mean that in due course other systems will be produced that are cheaper and smaller. That will ensure they are even more popular with the educational market and hackers — and even more problematic for oppressive regimes.

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Comments on “How The Runaway Success Of A Tiny $25 Computer Could Become A Big Problem For Oppressive Regimes”

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86 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

It could also be used to run a programmable coffee pot. However, it doesn’t mean it will subvert the entire coffee industry.

Further, if any “unfriendly” government feels that they are dealing with this sort of thing, the internet will likely get VERY filtered, and yes, that sort of traffic might actually stand out anyway.

I rate this piece barely 2/10, for a combination of wishful thinking and semi-ignorance of technology and networking… oh and the $25 unit doesn’t have a network port.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m thinking a pirate box, a few of these, some wireless routers, basic encryption algorithms, and we have one hell of a pirate network. What’s that? You work at starbucks? Oh, well do me a favor and plug this innocuous little device into the router (or if you’re real tech savvy open the router and directly solder it onto one of the ports and wire it into the power line) and BOOM instant node on a filsharing/free thinking/protest network (or pirate/radical/terrorist network depending on your views). Oh, there’s a public library nearby? That’s another node. Smartass in a computer class in a public high school? He’ll probably add a few nodes.

We could build a physically hidden encrypted network that spans the country, nay the globe.

It won’t happen, but the possibilities make me giggle just a little bit.

Beta (profile) says:

Computer? What computer?

Two new products immediately spring to mind:

1) A deniable computer that they can’t find on you. Maybe integrated circuits worked into commonplace objects, like soda bottles; they’re all over the place, but if you tap your private code into one it becomes a terminal…

2) A honeypot computer. It looks like a Raspberry Pi, but it has a hardware hack that feeds straight to the Ministry of Information. (Now there’s a counterfeiting issue we can feel strongly about!)

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Potential Educational Uses?

While the impact on openly oppressive regimes is likely to be great I can also see a great impact for activists in the increasingly oppressive western “democracies” and what we used to call the Free World. That’s all the naked politics I want to get into for now because this is really about something else.

We’ve seen well intentioned and, sometimes, well designed small machines built for the world’s poor but the projects often fall apart due to ego, greed and the seemingly endless fight between Windoze and Linux for a desktop. This little guy seems perfect for that kind of work and easily adaptable to most climate conditions.

Just a thought, because Glyn concentrated on political uses, to me this seems almost perfect for this sort of educational uses as well.

awbMaven (profile) says:

Potential Educational Uses?

“I’m thinking a pirate box, a few of these, some wireless routers, basic encryption algorithms, and we have one hell of a pirate network. What’s that? You work at starbucks? Oh, well do me a favor and plug this innocuous little device into the router (or if you’re real tech savvy open the router and directly solder it onto one of the ports and wire it into the power line) and BOOM instant node on a filsharing/free thinking/protest network (or pirate/radical/terrorist network depending on your views).”

Can you draw up a How-To and post it on Youtube?

TIA

Call me Al says:

Reminds me a bit of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

In some respects the possibilities here remind me a bit of an aspect of the plot from Little Brother. A computer is made available for little or no cost and for educations or gaming purposes and is then co-opted and worked with to form an alternative network for activism.

I think it is a decent reminder of what can be done with relatively basic tech and also a statement to authorities the world over (who likely won’t pay attention) that their outdated and unfortunate obsession with control and opacity are not popular with a sizeable portion of the populations they claim to represent.

Finally, if I may indulge in a moment of unnecessary patriotism, it does make me happy that people in the UK can still come up with awesome ideas like this… even as we sleepwalk into a police state.

Anonymous Coward says:

Potential Educational Uses?

This is the sort of thing i wish we had when i went to school, inexpensive enough for students and it would have been perfect for the computer programming classes i took.

On a personal note though the first thing that went through my head when i read about Raspberry Pi was “holy crap, i bet i could build one of those into an old LCD monitor”

awbMaven (profile) says:

Potential Educational Uses?

‘On a personal note though the first thing that went through my head when i read about Raspberry Pi was “holy crap, i bet i could build one of those into an old LCD monitor”‘

The first two things I thought of when reading about the excitement Raspberry Pi was generating was:

1. I wonder how many have blown a Raspberry?

[that’s a double entendre for the unaware]

(first answer I came up with was 3.14159…..)

JEDIDIAH says:

Yes. Let's broadcast ourselves to the KGB.

Ethernet is not redundant once you have access to a physical cable somewhere. While the traffic between subnets may need to be wireless as a practical matter, there’s no reason for traffic within a subnet to be wireless.

In fact, given the poor security aspects of wireless an ethernet port is even more critical in areas where personal freedom is limited.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re:

You might want to read the FAQ on the production model they’re selling now because it does have a network port. Of course, in a pinch, you can always add a USB network port which the OS will detect on boot up.

Does it occur to you that most oppressive (not all are unfriendly to the west I need to point out, to our everlasting shame) regimes already have filters and firewalls in existence in place so this won’t change things at all. That sort of traffic already exists and stands out but determined activists in those countries still find their way around it even if the results for them are often fatal.

As for semi-ignorance (actually approaching near total if you can’t RTFM or FAQ) you’ve got Glyn beat by several light years.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

Re:

My first computer (the first one I actually owned) was a KIM-1. OTOH, the first computer I ever programmed was an IBM 1130. But the oldest (earliest production) model computer I’ve ever programmed is an IBM 1620.

Pick one.

My fastest current computer is a Lenovo Thinkpad sporting a triple-core Phenom II P840 at 1.90 GHz, about a year old.

I have no idea what the performance differential is.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Potential Educational Uses?

I’m aware of that, I’m also aware of all the backbiting, ego clashing, OS debates and other things which have kept shipments down.

I’m glad that OLPC is still shipping and I mean that. My suggestion is that this may be a superior alternative given the ubiquity of tv sets even in some of the poorest parts of the world among other factors. The more devices we can get into children’s (and adults) hands in the poorer parts of the world the better off we are as it may reduce the growing digital divide.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

My first computer was a Tandy 1000HX. I think a cellphone from ten years ago would’ve been 10 times faster than it.

Whatever. The internet is awesome, plus I get to do old timer rants.
“You kids today have no idea how good you have it! In MY day, we had to go all the way to the computer store to buy free software on CD collections!”

chris (profile) says:

In fact, given the poor security aspects of wireless ...

Because with wireless, you can easily intercept the communications stream with nothing more than a cheap smartphone.

yes, but the goal of the project is to produce encrypted speech tools for use in a political environment where the oppressive regime has complete control over the network infrastructure. tapping a network is really easy when the network provider is complicit, just ask any law enforcement agency in the united states.

wired or wireless, the security of the tool is at the application level and not the network layer.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

In fact, given the poor security aspects of wireless ...

>Because with wireless, you can easily intercept the
>communications stream with nothing more than a cheap
>smartphone.

You do realize that, as standard MO on the Internet, the security is implemented at the endpoints, right? The assumption being that anything transmitted across the Internet can be intercepted and subject to eavesdropping and replay attacks, and (hopefully) even man-in-the-middle attacks. Wired or wireless should make no difference to security.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

“The most common usages in oppressive Regimes would be using long range wi/fi over the border/offshore or creating large ad/hoc wi/fi communications networks bypassing the blocked/filtered networks, so ethernet would be rather redundant.”

You still end up with the same set of problems. large ad/hoc networks would require that communications are either open or made public enough to allow people to connect, which in turn means the government / bad people/ whatever can do the same.

Further, the use of a wi-fi powerful enough to travel more than a few hundred meters would be easily detectable, and can easily be taken down by a more powerful signal at the border areas. Not much to it, really.

There really isn’t any simple way to hide, certainly few that are very cost effective.

ECA (profile) says:

This is an interesting unit.

I can see MANY purposes for this device.

90% of what we do with computers doesnt NEED Major POWER USE.
Wondering the net, writing Email, downloading, watching video’s, RSS feeds, and so on, and on and on…

This CAN and will hurt Intel. Once people understand that with a “FEW” of these, you can do most anything in your house.
There are 2 models, and the $35 dollar one is perfect.

Stats..
They sold about 700 per second.
They are back ordered for the next 2 months..at least.
Watch for sales of SDHC high end cards, you will need one.
Video output and HD output.
YES, you can add, external DRIVES/CD/DVD and soforth.
SWAP the OS, from 1 format to another, or the WHOLE configuration, in seconds.

Anyone want to wait to replace a DVD player?? recorder??
oNLINE MUSIC PLAYER? a CLOUD BASED COMPUTER?

It PROBABLY wont play all the new games, but how many OLDER people want to play games? I know Many that just want access to Facebook/email/.. and family. NOW we need a $10 service for BASIC/BASIC internet.

Want to restrict your kids on games they play..HERE IT IS.. TONS of older games should play on this. Many were designed under Linux. Then teach your kids to MOD those games. its only C++.
For $140 (4-$35 units) you can network your WHOLE HOUSE..with abit more hardware/software…it can do most anything you need/want. Dont need no $400+ MS windows machine. I’ll wait to see if they can be Daisy chained..Then get $400 worth and see if they can MARCH ON TOP of windows.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

In fact, given the poor security aspects of wireless ...

Yes, of course I realize that. I am speaking about security in general, not the specific case of if it’s the telco who is spying. But still, wired is more secure than wireless simply because fewer people have easy access to the bitstream.

Encryption helps a lot, but it’s far from a panacea. If you’re thinking that you’re secure because you’re using encryption, then you are in particularly dangerous territory.

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