Wednesday, 18 January 2012 19:13

Freedom for the masses: plug servers from FreedomBox


Proprietary social media platforms are used heavily even by those attending a conference meant for free and open source software users and Bdale Garbee used this fact to kick off his talk on FreedomBox at the 13th Australian national Linux conference in Ballarat today.

Garbee (below), the head of open source and Linux technologies at HP and a senior Debian developer, asked for a show of hands and found that every member of the audience used one of either Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or Google+.

He had a sobering bit of advice to the audience: each of these services involved a big tradeoff in personal privacy and people had to think before they used such services, he said, adding as an example the fact that photos uploaded to Facebook were subject to face recognition technology ostensibly for the purposes of catching bad guys. But it could just as easily be used to harass innocent people.

From this it was a short step to the topic of his talk, FreedomBox, a personal server running a free operating system and applications designed to create and preserve personal freedoms.
Bdale Garbee
The FreedomBox Foundation was set up by one of the doyens of the free software movement, Eben Moglen, and Garbee is on the board.

Garbee chairs the five-member technical advisory committee; the others on the panel are Jacob Applebaum, a privacy expert, Sam Hartman, a Debian developer, Sascha Meinrath, a mesh networking researcher, Rob Savoye, a GNU toolchain and embedded systems developer, and Matt Zimmerman, the former chief technical officer of Canonical.

The project aims to try and allow people to communicate with the confidence that they are not being snooped on. The project aims to either give away the servers free or else sell them at retail for an affordable price.

The obvious software candidate for use has been Debian GNU/Linux; Debian was ideal because it had a strong technical infrastructure, was ported to all relevant architectures, was not owned by any corporation and packaged all free software, Garbee said.

But it is not meant to be a Debian derivative; instead all the software needed for FreedomBox will be available within the Debian archives so that people could install it themselves on a plug computer if they so wished.

The project started out using the DreamPlug as its initial reference implementation platform. However there are some issues due to the Marvell uAP chip on board; it requires a binary driver to obtain full functionality.

But given the other specs of this plug computer - a 1.2 GHz ARM processor, 512 MB of memory, a 2M flash for u-boot, and 2G of flash for filesystems, 2 gigabit Ethernet interfaces, two USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA 2.0 port, an SD socket, and audio inputs - the FreedomBox project was continuing to use it and accept the lack of free drivers as a temporary obstacle. Other plug computers that could be used were the Sheeva plug and the Tonido.

Garbee said a lot of work for the project had been done during the Debconf in Banja Luka, Bosnia. He was able to put in some work towards an image-building tool, uAP user space tools, and a version of u-boot. Further some headway was made in figuring out identity and trust management, with Garbee saying he had concluded that the right way was to base trust relationships on OpenPGP keys using GnuPG and Monkeysphere as the software.

Garbee urged his audience to join the project if they could, as FreedomBox needed hackers to code. Financial contributions were also welcome, he said, adding that the organisation behind the little box was a non-profit. He said there was no fixed date for a 1.0 release but that it would, in true Debian-style, be released when it  was ready.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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