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Finally, A Way Everyone Can Keep Their Data From the NSA

It's not impossible to use the Internet (largely) free from the NSA's prying eyes. The problem is that the tools necessary to do so are comprehensible only to the technorati. But now one project and a self-taught developer still in college are aiming to change that.

[Image: Flickr user Christophe]

Ever since Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA snooping this summer, the general public has begun to take an interest in the privacy of their data. Whether its Gmail, Dropbox, or iCloud, consumer services have collaborated with the NSA to install backdoors to user data and introduce weaknesses into encryption systems. Tools like Owncloud provide safer alternatives, but you have to run your own server, configuring a LAMP stack and setting up port forwarding—a lot of overhead.

A new project called arkOS may finally bring private, secure, self-hosted cloud services to the masses. Led by an ambitious 23-year-old developer named Jacob Cook, arkOS is an open-source operating system that is currently being developed for the Raspberry Pi. The $35 credit-card sized computer is a perfect device for affordable home server hardware that is within reach for the everyday Internet user. (And we already know that the Pi is up to the challenge of functioning as a home server.)

Cook originally had the idea for arkOS after Google Reader, the popular RSS aggregator, shut down. Back then, he thought it was important for users to be able to run their own comparable services independent of corporations.

"I think that the idea of decentralizing infrastructure and getting people to be more self-reliant when it comes to hosting their own data is very beneficial to society," he says.

But things really kicked into gear after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA's far-reaching surveillance program.

"When the Snowden revelations started this project took on a new urgency and a new emphasis on being free because of all the things we know now about the access the NSA and the GCHQ have. Centralized infrastructure by definition makes that kind of access easier."

By far the biggest roadblock to decentralizing the infrastructure of the Internet is that the tools to run your own server require significant technical know-how. Cook is a self-taught sysadmin and built his first PC when he was six years old. Shortly thereafter he began experimenting with Linux and building websites. That means he's one of the few 23-year-olds alive who has firsthand experience of the Internet when Netscape Navigator was ascendant.

It also means that his command line fu is way above the level of your average Internet user. Even so, Cook says it still took him way too long to get a fully functioning self-hosted personal cloud.

"I'd set up everything on my own server by the command line and it took me quite a long time. If it took this long for me to do it with my skillset then it's going to be impossible for everyday people to even think about doing it."

That's when he realized that what the Internet really needs is a user-friendly way for everyone—not just developers—to host their own data, privately and securely.

The process to get up and running with arkOS couldn't be much simpler. There are installers available right now for Mac OS X and Linux. All a user needs to do is download the installer, select their SD card, and hit "next." Then pop the SD card into your Pi, plug the Pi into your router, and voila: Point your favorite web browser to http://arkOS:8000 and you're ready to start installing arkOS's "apps."

That's where the magic really happens. What sets arkOS apart is its user interface, an impressive application called Genesis. To the technical readers: Genesis is a graphical server management app bundled with autoconfig scripts for a suite of hosted web services. For everyone else: It's an app store for your personal cloud. Eventually, Cook hopes, the general public will use it to sever their dependency on third-party corporations handling their data.

Cook has also long-term plans for arkOS. Before releasing a 1.0 candidate, there will be a full code audit, which he says a number of security experts have already volunteered for. He also recognizes that the one pitfall of a home server is that it allows physical access to a user's data in a way that isn't the case for a tech giant's server rooms. To that end, he also plans to implement disk encryption in order to secure your data from the average house burglar or, say, a raid by a government agency.

At present, arkOS is still in alpha stage. Right now a user can run apps such as a WordPress website or an Owncloud instance (which itself offers a boatload of web services), but not much else. Implementations of the rest of the suite, such as an email server and handling security certificates, are still to come.

Cook has been working on arkOS for months now at nearly full-time hours—on top of his schoolwork and day job. He wants to have a solid beta release out in the world by April 2014 and a 1.0 by the end of 2014. In order to accomplish that, he wants to make it his job for a full year. So he's set up a crowdfunding campaign (self-hosted, naturally) to be able to pay himself a salary and invest in some infrastructure for the project. In just 15 days he's already met 75% of his $45,000 goal. You can help his progress by contributing to his fund here.