When laws fail: can technology like Freedom Box shield us from PRISM?

If you don’t want the government grabbing your data, don’t give it to sites like Facebook(s fb) and Google(s goog) in the first place. That’s the view of Eben Moglen, a law professor who is building a decentralized network around a device called the Freedom Box, which he says will let people use email and social networks without the risk of surveillance.

“We help people avoid storing things in centralized places and make it easy for people to write on each other’s walls without giving that information to the government or Mr. Zuckerberg,” said Moglen by phone. “We will provide a solution to email privacy. It’s like Gmail but not in a central service. We’ll replace Facebook with a network that works as well but won’t spy on you.”

The Freedom Box, if it arrives, will come at an opportune time. Programs like PRISM, which rely on secret data conduits between the National Security Agency and internet companies, have challenged consumers’ casual attitude to privacy — and raised the question of whether technology can protect civil liberties when laws have not.

Technology in place of law

Moglen and his team at the Software Freedom Center first announced the Freedom Box in early 2011, and now Moglen says that a version 1.0 will arrive for consumers in the coming months. The device, which plugs into the wall and is eben moglenexpected to sell for under $50, uses VOIP and the TOR network to offer encrypted, anonymous communications.

For Moglen, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and is renowned in the field of open-source software, the PRISM revelations validate his warnings about centralized information systems.

“[PRISM] is only an ice cube in the Arctic,” he says, adding that the scope of surveillance is much broader than the single program exposed by former CIA agent, Edward Snowden. Moglen also shares software activist Richard Stallman’s view that cell phones, which collect a person’s data and record their location, amount to a form of creeping Stalinism.

For now, Moglen says, technology like the Freedom Box provide the best option for people to shield their communications from the government at a time when traditional legal protections like the Fourth Amendment have been eroded.

“We’re making software as a way to retrofit for privacy and freedom on the internet,” he says.

Possibilities — and limits

The website for the Freedom Box describes it as a system of “wireless routers given the brains of a smart phone [where] the boxes can find each other regardless of location or restrictive firewall.”

Moglen explained by phone that, for practical purposes, it will allow users to perform ordinary internet functions — chatting, sending video and so on — but with “some hope of anonymously and safety.”

If it works, the system may not only improve privacy in the United States, but will provide a way for people in repressive regimes like Syria to communicate with each other when the government knocks the internet off-line. For now, though, that prospect appears to be a big “if.” For starters, it’s unclear if an encrpyted Freedom Box network could avoid depending on major companies like Verizon and AT&T — which, like Google and Facebook, are subject to secret NSA surveillance — for an internet connection. And even if technological solutions are within reach, there is no guarantee there are enough people to build or adopt them.

Privacy observers will recall that, in 2010, a group of students inspired by Moglen launched Diaspora, a social-network billed as “the anti-Facebook” that relied on decentralized data storage. The start-up received widespread attention and, ironically, a donation from Mark Zuckerberg. But in late 2011 the young man at the center of the project committed suicide and, since then, the only Facebook competitors to emerge are companies like Instagram (which Facebook bought) and Snapchat, which are arguably even more intrusive than the original social network.

This isn’t the only example of average people showing reluctance to adopt what appear to be relatively low-tech privacy protections. As the Washington Post’s Timothy Lee recounts, the cyberpunk movement created encrypted email and messaging formats, but people instead adopted the simplicity of Gmail and Hotmail.

Moglen suggests that the PRISM outcry is a new test for people to take privacy seriously. “The nature of the human future depends on how people want to handle that. Not thinking about it is becoming less of an option.”

Technology and degraded democracy

Moglen is a radical even by the libertarian standards of the software and high-tech community. But he’s also an accomplished historian and constitutional scholar whose views on freedom and the Fourth Amendment can’t be dismissed out of hand.

US constitutionFor Moglen, projects like the Freedom Box are simply a palliative that won’t repair the larger problem of a broken political system in which democratic governments around the world are systematically hiding their operations from the people they represent. He acknowledges that individual politicians like Sen. Ron Wyden (D, Ore.) have the potential to shift the debate, but remains pessimistic that, in an age where “there are no virtuous countries,” anything short of wholesale renewal will check the surveillance society.

“[Technology] won’t solve the problem of every government having a robust social graph of their society. We have to establish that it’s not perfectly OK to spy on people — in the same way basic principles of human freedom were established at the end of the 18th century.”