Ok, a lot of you are probably seeing in the news lately of a battle going on between internet pirates, copyright trolls and media corporations. Lately it’s been looking like the copyright trolls and media corporations are winning – however this war of control seems to operate to some degree of balance and it seems like that balance is about to either equalize or swing the other way.
Also – there are similiar battles raging out with Governments and Freedom of speech and other areas of information control. It’s getting so silly to a point where you can’t use normal website services to share a home video with your friends and the public of you cat or kid doing something silly because of some background radio blurting out a copyrighted tune and thus your amateur recording gets at least partially censored if not completely due to a copyright claim? Or if the video’s content offends some culturally uptight person from another country, religion, race or gender?
Sure – the censoring of things on websites isn’t so bad now – but it’s gradually getting there so that eventually you can’t post anything without at least upsetting some hyper-sensitive twat over some issue vaguely relating to what you were posting about. As this censorship creep grows – something has to give before it becomes too impractical to even think in public.
This is where a shift in the internet landscape is about to occur – in the mainstream net traffic we have evolved from basic communication with email, ftp and websites. We have seen the rise of instant messengers, social media, bittorrent and other variations of peer2peer type file transfers. but it’s now been well established that all of our mainstream technologies so far have been to some degree – trackable.
Now an increasing number of people are starting to express their displeasure of having some government, group or organisation looking over their shoulder and saying “what’s that? I don’t think I like what you are doing there so I’m going to put a stop to that!”. Here is the problem – ordinary people want to do things their own way no matter how much you try to dictate things – there will always be a sizeable portion of those who want things unrestricted, uncensored and free to use a service in whatever way they want it to be used.
Enter the darknet approach – even though the underlying technology has been around for some time – it’s only now that it’s starting to gain mainstream attention. Up till now selective darknets have been operating all sorts of spy-vs-spy and black market type activities. But now the common software and media pirates are starting to flock to this kind of scene.
Why only let the bad guys play with such powerful tools to have these abilities? this is where software like Retroshare is stepping in – to provide a darknet type of functionality but with a twist – Retroshare has been fused into a combination of friend-to-friend protocol with encryption, social media and chat abilities, file sharing and the ability to operate in between anonymous and authenticated activity.
While other reviews and blogs will probably be covering a lot of the anonymity, piracy filesharing and the usual dodgy nature of darknets. I will be focusing more on the potential to reconnect with your friends and the possibilities of ways to collaborate on projects with people using this technology. As this is where I think the higher qualities of retroshare’s magic is going to shine.
I made this review to hopefully show my friends and colleagues who probably wouldn’t be aware of it otherwise of this potentially useful tool. I’m not promoting illegal activity here – just pointing out that as a result of other people’s questionable activities we have resulted to the evolution of a new way to maintain communication between each other.
Getting Started with Retroshare:
When you first install Retroshare – you’ll have an interface with literally no connectivity. This is normal as you need to make friends first in order to start getting functionality happening. to add someone – you would need to get their Restroshare key and add it to your client and provide your own key to your friend. The key you generate during setup and set a password for it – you keep your password to yourself as this is your only authentication into that profile – the key can be shared publicly but is only useful to someone if you have added their key to your client.
A key can be shared in three ways – raw text to copy/paste somewhere, or a *.RSC type key file to share, or by using the email feature to send your key email contacts.
When you start out with very few friends – you at least begin to be able to use it’s features between each other. If your little network gradually grows as more friends join in – then the available resources and content will also expand based on what they are sharing and who they are also connecting to. Your view of the network is only partial – you can see the connections you have to your friends – and you may be able to see who your friends are friends with – but that’s as far as the network will let you see – all further connections from the friends of friends pretty much becomes anonymized traffic.
[warning]If you wish to avoid coming across very questionable material that could get you into trouble – I suggest keeping your friend connections to only those you trust and know. However if your friends connect to other strange people you may still get some partial exposure to questionable materials (or if they are sharing it themselves) [/warning]
Once you have established connections with your friends – you and your friends will constantly sync some information between each other while both of you are online – informing each other of available resources and what details are currently circulating in those resources – since it’s a server-less protocol there is no primary server to confirm against.
Ok – We are connected – now what?
From this point I’m going to break into each of the handy features – I may leave some out since a couple of features for mixed reasons – but the ones I am covering are potentially useful for the common person.
Checking who’s connected to who in your portion of the network:
To some degree you can check who your friends are connected to – this may be handy if you are trying to maintain a tightly-knit group for a collaboration project and want to reduce the chances of external peeps snooping. And in some ways it may help gain connection to other friends you haven’t joined to your retroshare friend’s list. (Though I think they would still need to add you as well in order to complete a connection)
The friends section:
This area has a few cool chat and status-like facilities.
It gives you a friends list – where you can sort friends into groups (which might come in handy later on). Beside the list is a few tabs – one of which is a news feed that tells you who has connected recently and what new resources may have been discovered via those active connections.
The group chat is a bit of a weird one – not sure on the overall usefulness here apart from blabbing generic statements publicly to your friends. while you may be able to hold a conversation with a directly connected friend – their friends who are not connected to you will only see half of the conversation as it unfolds. To hold a more logical conversation you turn to the “Chat Lobbies” tab and join or create a chat room.
When creating a chat lobby – you can set it to public or private. setting to private will mean you will need to define which friends or friend groups are allowed to join.
Search, Files and Transfers:
The files section allows you to openly browse the folders and files your friends have decided to openly share with direct friends. Right-clicking a file or folder with give you the few options of what you can do with the files. You can also check from here which files and folders you are sharing as well.
The Search section lets you look for things in a much wider range of resources. The search feature I think gives both browsable and anonymized results. And you get pretty much the same options as the files section when you right-click the items you want.
The Transfers section is where your selected downloads go to. It will give you statistics on each file and their progress status. If the sources for a file are not online at the time – then it may sit there until you remove it or if one of the sources who has the file comes online and begins sharing.
If more than one person has at least a part if not all of a file you are downloading – you will begin to get a slight bittorrent effect happening where you can get the file quicker then what the source may be able to provide in speed.
Could the age of spamless email have finally arrived?
Yes – there is a mail feature here – it lacks a number of common advanced email features at the moment but it at least gives the basics. What it lacks in features it makes up for in security – only your direct retroshare friends can email you! (They must be someone you have shared ID keys with in order to use).
Channels – the internal blogging system:
With channels – it’s like having a blog – it lets you post things to anybody who is subscribed to your channel – by default it only lets the creator post – but appears to at least allow selected friends to have publishing rights when you are first setting up and allow temporary publishing rights to other friends online. Any files referenced in these blogs appear to only be accessible from the host or anyone who has subscribed and already gotten the updated information from the host.
The forums will probably become one of the most popular features – allowing discussion over whatever topics are brought up. Though some forum posts may take a while to update to everyone (and some over time may vanish depending on who posted and when). These forums can be set at time of creation to allow anonymous posting or require authenticated posting.
The chat areas separated in a couple of ways.
Group Chat: this is where anyone can cay anything – in a quick broadcast kind of way – only your direct friends are likely to see these messages. What gets interesting here is that if your friends reply – their response will broadcast to all their friends. For those who are not direct friends with both of you then they will only get half the conversation. So this feature will probably be best for just sending out basic statements.
Chat Lobbies: The more real chat functionality. Lets you create public or private chat rooms where those who are joined in will see everyone’s messages that are posted. However bear in mind you can’t be too sure who you are talking to because the chat room does not confirm who is posting what as everyone has the option to change their chat nicknames and impersonate each other.
This is more of a system status spamming area. When you go online this area will start filling with messages stating who is online from your friends lists, what new posts have appeared in the forums & channels, any detected unauthenticated attempts (happens if someone has added your key but you haven’t added theirs) and other possible system notifications.
Upcoming Features and related developments:
Introservers: Unless you are just sticking to a closed group of friends – some of you want to find other random people of various interests to connect to. From what I’m reading up so far Introservers operate like a node or website of their own to supply a chat hub for people to communicate and exchange keys. This hub apparently auto-disconnects you after a couple of days or so assuming you will have established a number of contacts by then. At time of posting it appears these are just starting to become available.
VOIP Capability: I saw some discussions about possibly implementing some kind of voip/skype audio conferencing chat abilities. Unsure if this will ever make light of day but is a realistic possibility.
It’s still a bit early in development to tell how this is all going to turn out – but I think Retroshare has huge potential to become another common platform for the general public to communicate with. While it doesn’t have the same layout and format as most other social media sites and behaves a little different to instant messenger and download applications – it’s privacy abilities and the opportunity to publish without censorship may make the difference in this increasingly exposed and regulated digital world.