How to create your own hidden network

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For us privacy loons, it’s always interesting to find ways to communicate with friends and family on the internet without having to worry about somebody watching everything we’re doing. With the battle against piracy heating up, its interesting to watch the technological fallout that is taking place in the software arena.

A newsworthy newcomer on the P2P stage is just starting to grab media attention. After installing it and setting it up, I can see why. RetroShare takes advantage of a variety of technologies to provide a simple way to set up your own DarkNet.

For most people, a DarkNet sounds a little like it belongs firmly in the realm of all criminal activity, and in some cases that’s not an entirely wrong perception. With the recent shutdown of MegaUpload, numerous online file-sharing sites simply shut up shop. While there were many legitimate users, it is clear that an awful lot of piracy is carried out using online file-sharing services. No wonder then that software like RetroShare, which allows you to privately share files inside your own network of trust, is suddenly gaining momentum among pirates. DarkNets have always offered a safe-haven for criminals, because their entire architecture is designed to hide activity from watching eyes. That means that most of the time, DarkNets only get media mention when a child-pornography ring gets busted… or something like that.

But DarkNets actually have a lot to offer, and RetroShare is a great example of how this sort of software could easily gain ground among more legitimate users. RetroShare shys away from being called a P2P network, and prefers the term F2F (Friend-to-Friend). That’s because unlike most P2P networks where your computer will connect to the network and share information with a huge number of unknown peers, RetroShare will only connect to other peers that you have explicitly allowed into your network, and all communications are private. All you need to do is install the software and generate a PGP/GPG key, which will be used to encrypt and decrypt your network traffic. The hard part is getting at least 5 of your friends to also install the software and to share their public keys with you. Once that is done, you have your very own DarkNet.

For pirates, and other criminals, the obvious appeal is the ability to share data within a trusted network that nobody else can monitor. But you needn’t have criminal intention to see the advantages of this. To begin with, RetroShare opens up the possibility of sharing work files with home computers within a secure framework, much like a VPN but with a lot less hassle. It also allows you to share things like photos of your latest drunken escapade with your friends (and ONLY your friends). This is the fundamental difference that makes this software different to your average P2P filesharing software. You have complete control over who belongs to your network and what they can see.

But filesharing isn’t the be-all and end-all of F2F or P2P software. RetroShare includes a number of useful features that give the software a ‘social networking’ spin that is actually very enticing to the average end-user. To begin with, it includes an Instant Messenger that allows you to chat to friends privately and securely, without any third-party looking in on your conversation or storing a log of it for future reference. That also includes ‘Group Chat’ where you can communicate with everybody in your network (or with groups of friends) in a secure space.

There’s also something equivalent to email, for less immediate communications between friends within your network. The client side of things here looks sufficiently similar to an older version of Thunderbird for most users to feel at home. Of course, mail only works within your network, but it creates a space for private and secure messaging for when users are offline, and allows you to send attachments to other people in the network, even if the files that you want to attach don’t belong to your usual shared directories.

In keeping with the ‘social network’ feel of the software, there is also a secure forum space which essentially behaves in a similar way to the old USENET. You can create your own forum, or subscribe to somebody else’s forum, to exchange messages with other users in your network with shared interests.

None of the facilities that RetroShare has to offer seem particularly new or groundbreaking on their own. However, RetroShare provides many of the features that you might look for in a good social network, but with the added advantage of complete privacy. Furthermore, I believe that it has a lot of potential as a tool in the workplace, to provide ways to securely share files with third-parties and to protect communications. RetroShare can be easily installed on Windows, Linux or Mac computers and has such a simple interface that even my mum can use it.

Now I just have to start convincing my friends that I’m ready to close my Facebook account.

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