The press has been blissfully buzzing lately with rumors and long-shot speculation about a privacy/anonymity application called Peekabooty, which white hat group Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) is developing for roll-out at this year's Defcon convention in Las Vegas this July.
It certainly didn't take long for UK-based security/censorware outfit Baltimore Technologies to try to parlay the rumors into a fast buck by selling protection from Peekabooty -- which it warns will shelter criminals and pedophiles and lead to all sorts of crippling liabilities for corporate network operators -- with its product MIMEsweeper.
"Organizations can prepare and protect themselves from the malicious use of the "Peekabooty" browser, due to be launched in July, by using the Baltimore MIMEsweeper family of solutions," an alarmist company press release says.
"Although developed for ethical reasons [PB] has raised concerns that it may be abused and used maliciously to circulate child pornography, confidential information, and stolen data." (We just love it when censors try to sound righteous and civic-minded.)
But here's what's interesting; Balto Tech thinks it knows how Peekabooty works, and cites the media (chiefly ZDNet and the BBC) as the source of its information.
"Recent media reports claim that 'Peekabooty', a browser developed by 'The Cult of the Dead Cow', can make it impossible to control the material people have access to on the World Wide Web," the company warns.
Of course, controlling the material people have access to on the Web is what MIMEsweeper is all about. But we're not confident that Baltimore Tech knows what it's saying, because no one from cDc is willing to reveal precisely how Peekabooty works just yet. They naturally want to save the details for the rollout.
So Balto Tech is really saying that if PB works the way a few news drones guess it works, then they'll be able to defeat it; and you'd be wise to buy their products now, before this gangster-and-pedo-enabling scary hacker stuff gets loose.
Rumor and Innuendo
The great P2P myth comes originally, we think, from ZDNet's Will Knight, who on 30 April claimed that PB "will be based on peer-to-peer network technology. This allows data to be distributed directly between computer systems and has attained fame through the emergence of music-sharing technologies such as Napster and Gnutella."
And then that venerable technology source the BBC swallowed it whole, paraphrased it, and passed it along: "Peekabooty will work like the Gnutella peer-to-peer network that has no central server and instead uses all the machines in the system to hold data," their report dated 6 May says.
Undoubtedly this is how Balto Tech hopes it works. But unless they managed to obtain a beta version, then they're only guessing and selling the security equivalent of snake oil -- which is hardly a unique move in the world of commercial Internet security and virus protection.
The usual marketing fraud here depends on exaggerating some lame little threat in a slew of alarmist media releases, thereby using a less-than tech savvy press corps as a mechanism of free advertising to help sell peace-of-mind in the form of a product or service.
And here Balto Tech is showing great mastery of the 'exaggerated threat' genre, cynically appealing to the protection of innocent children in a bid to hustle its wares.
Some Truth about Peekabooty
We can't tell you exactly what it is (though we will in about a month's time); but we can certainly tell you what it isn't.
First off, it's not based on P2P technology; it's got nothing to do with anonymous file sharing, and nothing to do with distributed data storage. And, contrary to what Balto Tech imagines, it's not a 'browser.'
On the other hand, generally speaking, it has to do with anonymizing a client's access to a server. It will be distributed, but actual Web content won't (i.e., it's not a proxy scheme).
What's to be distributed here is a means of anonymous access to the Web. It will be collaborative, and in that sense similar to SafeWeb's Triangle Boy, and yet individualized.
It's also highly political. It defies, and rightly so, the outrageous claims of government and commerce upon our natural, human right to communicate freely, anonymously, and in confidence.
If it works as advertised, governments and corporations will hate it, and will struggle to defeat it. But if it works as advertised, it will evolve as an open-source application and perhaps stay a step ahead of would-be censors.
That it has both political and philosophical dimensions is no accident. The group is quite conscious of both, and is developing the tool deliberately in anticipation of political impact. In that sense, it represents hacktivism at its best.
Because it's able (we hope) to defeat commercial and government observation, and because it can be set up by individuals or small groups for their own use without recourse to any sort of 'official' assistance, it cuts society out of the private communications loop which it so desperately wishes to regulate.
Thus it speaks to the difference between civil rights, which are granted by societies through their governments, and human rights, or natural rights, which belong to us a priori. These are so essential to our nature as a species that no legitimate government has the right to abridge them, or even presume to grant them.
Among these are the right to draw breath; to believe what we will in spite of social conditioning; to draw the curtains when needed and be secure in an inviolable state of privacy, whether in solitude or in company. And of course, to communicate freely with our own kind. These are not 'civil rights': these are natural human needs, which grant us the natural privileges which each one of us owns from birth until death.
So if Peekabooty really does work as advertised, it will have the effect of removing society and its enforcers from one district, at least, in the realm of natural-rights regulation, where it has no business venturing, and restore an important balance of power between the individual and the masses surrounding him who think they know what he should be allowed to read, and to say.
We've got our fingers crossed. ®