Public interest technology

Security and privacy in tech: The new age of public interest technology

May 26, 2021 / Digital Security, Data Privacy / By Sam de Silva

In March 2021, the OPTF got the opportunity to discuss the importance of digital security tools for civil society organisations at the Virtual Conference on Public Interest Technology hosted by the Arizona State University. The concept of ‘public interest technology’ is slowly gaining traction with an increasing number of events and discussions exploring the term and its meaning.

During the early days, the internet itself was a public interest technology. The technical infrastructure came out of academia, and it was free to use. Emails and websites were able to route around geographic and marketing cost barriers to engage global communities. Millions of people could connect with each other, and the new communications technologies were seen as being able to empower the powerless — and for some ambitious idealists, destroy oppressive structures. 

OPTF’s work is underpinned by the public interest. We have created a community-owned and influenced infrastructure — the service node (SN) network — which enables secure and private communications. The SN network is constantly expanding, and at the time of writing there are over just over 1,700 nodes (or servers) spanning all the way across the planet. What’s unique about this network is that it is community owned. The servers that constitute the network are operated by hundreds of individuals and small syndicates  who actively participate and contribute to the work and strategies of the OPTF. 

We have also built two applications. Session, an easy to use private instant messaging app which enables the public to communicate with each other without leaving behind a digital trail that can be used to identify them. Lokinet provides anonymous internet access, enabling the public to browse websites anonymously, circumvent surveillance and censorship, and access hidden or private websites. 

So, why are technologies that provide and promote digital privacy and security in the public interest? 

We’re now living in a world where digital surveillance is everywhere, conducted by governments and corporations. The motivations behind surveillance may differ, but fundamentally, it is to track our behaviour with the aim of influencing our actions, encourage compliance with government rules and regulations, or to purchase products or services. 

For democracy to function, it’s important that we, the public, are guaranteed certain rights and freedoms. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies we must not have our privacy interfered with, that we have the right to freedom of assembly and association, and the right to freedom of thought, opinion and expression. Secure technologies — including Session and Lokinet — enable the public to protect these fundamental freedoms, while they communicate with others or interact through the internet.  

OPTF is committed to creating a public interest internet and secure tools that are decentralised in their operation and accountable to our community of developers and users. Oxen, the code library behind our work, has a growing community that participates in Telegram chats, and attends our regular community meetings. 

However, the spectre of government and corporate driven digital surveillance continues to be a threat to public interest technologies. We are also deeply concerned by cyber laws that aim to weaken encryption and legalise backdoors into public internet technologies. The OPTF will continue to participate in discussions that promote the ideas and principles of public interest technologies, and ensure that digital privacy and security are not compromised as we move forward towards a more community-led public interest technology movement once again. 

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