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Archive for the tag “Privacy”

The VR Show

One of the things If I had got the visa on time for Debconf 15 (Germany) apart from the conference itself was the attention on VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) . I had heard the hype so much for so many years that I wanted to experience and did know that with Debianities who might be perhaps a bit better in crystal-gazing and would have perhaps more of an idea as I had then. The only VR which I knew about was from Hollywood movies and some VR videos but that doesn’t tell you anything. Also while movie like Chota-Chetan and others clicked they were far lesser immersive than true VR has to be.

I was glad that it didn’t happen after the fact as in 2016 while going to the South African Debconf I experienced VR at Qatar Airport in a Samsung showroom. I was quite surprised as how heavy the headset was and also surprised by how little content they had. Something which has been hyped for 20 odd years had not much to show for it. I was also able to trick the VR equipment as the eye/motion tracking was not good enough so if you put shook the head fast enough it couldn’t keep up with you.

I shared the above as I was invited to another VR conference by a web-programmer/designer friend Mahendra couple of months ago here in Pune itself . We attended the conference and were showcased quite a few success stories. One of the stories which was liked by the geek in me was framastore’s 360 Mars VR Experience on a bus the link shows how the framastore developers mapped Mars or part of Mars on Washington D.C. streets and how kids were able to experience how it would feel to be on Mars without knowing any of the risks the astronauts or the pioneers would have to face if we do get the money, the equipment and the technology to send people to Mars. In reality we are still decades from making such a trip keeping people safe to Mars and back or to have Mars for the rest of their life.

If my understanding is correct, the gravity of Mars is half of earth and once people settle there they or their exoskeleton would no longer be able to support Earth’s gravity, at least a generation who is born on Mars.

An interesting take on how things might turn out is shown in ‘The Expanse

But this is taking away from the topic at hand. While I saw the newer generation VR headsets there are still a bit ways off. It would be interesting once the headset becomes similar to eye-glasses and you do not have to either be tethered to a power unit or need to lug a heavy backpack full of dangerous lithium-ion battery. The chemistry for battery or some sort of self-powered unit would need to be much more safer, lighter.

While being in the conference and seeing the various scenarios being played out between potential developers and marketeers, it crossed my mind that people were not at all thinking of safe-guarding users privacy. Right from what games or choices you make to your biometric and other body sensitive information which has a high chance of being misused by companies and individuals.

There were also questions about how Sony and other developers are asking insane amounts for use of their SDK to develop content while it should be free as games and any content is going to enhance the marketability of their own ecosystem. For both the above questions (privacy and security asked by me) and SDK-related questions asked by some of the potential developers were not really answered.

At the end, they also showed AR or Augmented Reality which to my mind has much more potential to be used for reskilling and upskilling of young populations such as India and other young populous countries. It was interesting to note that both China and the U.S. are inching towards the older demographics while India would relatively be a still young country till another 20-30 odd years. Most of the other young countries (by median age) seem to be in the African continent and I believe (might be a myth) is that they are young because most of the countries are still tribal-like and they still are perhaps a lot of civil wars for resources.

I was underwhelmed by what they displayed in Augmented Reality, part of which I do understand that there may be lot many people or companies working on their IP and hence didn’t want to share or show or show a very rough work so their idea doesn’t get stolen.

I was also hoping somebody would take about motion-sickness or motion displacement similar to what people feel when they are train-lagged or jet-lagged. I am surprised that wikipedia still doesn’t have an article on train-lag as millions of Indians go through the process every year. The one which is most pronounced on Indian Railways is Motion being felt but not seen.

There are both challenges and opportunities provided by VR and AR but until costs come down both in terms of complexity, support and costs (for both the deployer and the user) it would remain a distant dream.

There are scores of ideas that could be used or done. For instance, the whole of North India is one big palace in the sense that there are palaces built by Kings and queens which have their own myth and lore over centuries. A story-teller could use a modern story and use say something like Chota Imambara or/and Bara Imambara where there have been lots of stories of people getting lost in the alleyways.

Such sort of lore, myths and mysteries are all over India. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are just two of the epics which tell how grand the tales could be spun. The History of Indus Valley Civilization till date and the modern contestations to it are others which come to my mind.

Even the humble Panchtantra can be re-born and retold to generations who have forgotten it. I can’t express it much better as the variety of stories and contrasts to offer as bolokids does as well as SRK did in opening of IFFI. Even something like Khakee which is based on true incidents and a real-life inspector could be retold in so many ways. Even Mukti Bhavan which I saw few months ago, coincidentally before I became ill tells of stories which have complex stories and each person or persons have their own rich background which on VR could be much more explored.

Even titles such as the ever-famous Harry Potter or even the ever-beguiling RAMA could be shared and retooled for generations to come. The Shiva Trilogy is another one which comes to my mind which could be retold as well. There was another RAMA trilogy by the same author and another competing one which comes out in 2018 by an author called PJ Annan

We would need to work out the complexities of both hardware, bandwidth and the technologies but stories or content waiting to be developed is aplenty.

Once upon a time I had the opportunity to work, develop and understand make-believe walk-throughs (2-d blueprints animated/bought to life and shown to investors/clients) for potential home owners in a society (this was in the hey-days and heavy days of growth circa around y2k ) , it was 2d or 2.5 d environment, tools were lot more complex and I was the most inept person as I had no idea of what camera positioning and what source of light meant.

Apart from the gimmickry that was shown, I thought it would have been interesting if people had shared both the creative and the budget constraints while working in immersive technologies and bringing something good enough for the client. There was some discussion in a ham-handed way but not enough as there was considerable interest from youngsters to try this new medium but many lacked both the opportunities, knowledge, the equipment and the software stack to make it a reality.

Lastly, as far as the literature I have just shared bits and pieces of just the Indian English literature. There are 16 recognized Indian languages and all of them have a vibrant literature scene. Just to take an example, Bengal has been a bed-rock of new Bengali Detective stories all the time. I think I had shared the history of Bengali Crime fiction sometime back as well but nevertheless here it is again.

So apart from games, galleries, 3-d visual interactive visual novels with alternative endings could make for some interesting immersive experiences provided we are able to shed the costs and the technical challenges to make it a reality.

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The road to TOR

Happy Independence Day to all. I had been looking forward to this day so I can use to share with my brothers and sisters what little I know about TOR . Independence means so many things to many people. For me, it means having freedom, valuing it and using it to benefit not just to ourselves but to people at large. And for that to happen, at least on the web, it has to rise above censorship if we are to get there at all. I am 40 years old, and if I can’t read whatever I want to read without asking the state-military-Corporate trinity than be damned with that. Debconf was instrumental as I was able to understand and share many of the privacy concerns that we all have. This blog post is partly a tribute to being part of a community and being part of Debconf16.

So, in that search for privacy couple of years ago, I came across TOR . TOR stands for ‘The Onion Router’ project. Explaining tor is simple. Let us take the standard way in which we approach the website using a browser or any other means.

a. We type out a site name, say debian.org in the URL/URI bar .
b. Now the first thing the browser would do is look into its DNS Cache to see if the name/URL has been used before. If it is something like debian.org which has been used before and is *fresh* and there is content already it would serve the content from the cache there itself.
c. In case, if it’s not or the content is stale or something, it would generate a DNS lookup through the various routing tables till the DNS IP Address is found and information relayed to the browser.
d. The browser takes the IP Address and opens a TCP connection to the server, you have the handshake happen and after that it’s business as usual.
e. In case if it doesn’t work, you could get errors like ‘Could not connect to server xyz’ or some special errors with error codes.

This is a much simplified version of what happens or goes through normally with most/all of the browsers.

One good way to see how the whole thing happens is to use traceroute and use the whois service.

For e.g. –

[$] traceroute debian.org

and then

[$] whois 5.153.231.4 | grep inetnum
inetnum: 5.153.231.0 - 5.153.231.255

Just using whois IP Address gives much more. I just shared a short version because I find it interesting that Debian has booked all 255 possible IP Addresses but speculating on that would be probably be a job for a different day.

Now the difference when using TOR are two things –

a. The conversation is encrypted (somewhat like using https but encrypted through the relays)
b. The conversation is relayed over 2-3 relays and it will give a somewhat different identification to the DNS server at the other end.
c. It is only at the end-points that the conversation will be in plain text.

For e.g. the TOR connection I’m using atm is from me – France (relay) – Switzerland (relay) – Germany (relay) – WordPress.com . So wordpress thinks that all the connection is happening via Germany while I’m here in India. It would also tells that I’m running MS-Windows some version and a different browser while I’m from somewhere in India, on Debian, using another browser altogether 🙂

There are various motivations for doing that. For myself, I’m just a private person and do not need or want that any other person/s or even the State should be looking over my shoulder as to what I’m doing. And the argument that we need to spy on citizens because Terrorists are there doesn’t hold water over me. There are many ways in which they can pass messages even without tor or web. The Government-Corporate-Military just get more powerful if and when they know what common people think, do, eat etc.

So the question is how does you install tor if you a private sort of person . If you are on a Debian machine, you are one step closer to doing that.

So the first thing that you need to do is install the following –

$ sudo aptitude install ooniprobe python-certifi tor tor-geoipdb torsocks torbrowser-launcher

Once the above is done, then run torbrowser-launcher. This is how it would work out the first time it is run –

[$] torbrowser-launcher

Tor Browser Launcher
By Micah Lee, licensed under MIT
version 0.2.6
https://github.com/micahflee/torbrowser-launcher
Creating GnuPG homedir /home/shirish/.local/share/torbrowser/gnupg_homedir
Downloading and installing Tor Browser for the first time.
Downloading https://dist.torproject.org/torbrowser/update_2/release/Linux_x86_64-gcc3/x/en-US
Latest version: 6.0.3
Downloading https://dist.torproject.org/torbrowser/6.0.3/tor-browser-linux64-6.0.3_en-US.tar.xz.asc
Downloading https://dist.torproject.org/torbrowser/6.0.3/tor-browser-linux64-6.0.3_en-US.tar.xz
Verifying signature
Extracting tor-browser-linux64-6.0.3_en-US.tar.xz
Running /home/shirish/.local/share/torbrowser/tbb/x86_64/tor-browser_en-US/start-tor-browser.desktop
Launching './Browser/start-tor-browser --detach'...

As can be seen above, you basically download the tor browser remotely from the website. Obviously, for this port 80 needs to be opened.

One of the more interesting things is that it tells you where it installs the browser.

/home/shirish/.local/share/torbrowser/tbb/x86_64/tor-browser_en-US/Browser/start-tor-browser and then detaches.

The first time the TOR browser actually runs it looks something similar to this –

Torbrowser picture

Torbrowser picture

Additionally it would give you 4 choices. Depending on your need for safety, security and convenience you make a choice and live with it.

Now the only thing remaining to do is have an alias for your torbrowser. So I made

[$] alias tor

tor=/home/shirish/.local/share/torbrowser/tbb/x86_64/tor-browser_en-US/Browser/start-tor-browser

It is suggested that you do not use the same usernames on the onion network.

Also apart from the regular URL addresses such as ‘flossexperiences.wordpress.com’ you will also see sites such as https://www.abc12defgh3ijkl.onion.to (fictional address)

Now there would be others who would want to use the same/similar settings say as there are in their Mozilla Firefox installation.

To do that do the following steps –

a. First close down both Torbrowser and Mozilla Firefox .
b. Open your file browser and go to where your mozilla profile details are. In typical Debian installations it is at

~/.mozilla/firefox/5r7t1r92.default

In the next tab, navigate to –

~/.local/share/torbrowser/tbb/x86_64/tor-browser_en-US/Browser/TorBrowser/Data/Browser/profile.default

c. Now copy the following files over from your mozilla profile to your tor browser profile and you can resume where you left off.

    cert8.db
    chromeappsstore.sqlite
    content-prefs.sqlite
    cookies.sqlite
    formhistory.sqlite
    key3.db
    logins.json (Firefox 32 and above)
    mimeTypes.rdf
    permissions.sqlite
    persdict.dat
    places.sqlite
    signons3.txt (if exists)
    webappsstore.sqlite

and the following folders/directories

    bookmarkbackups
    chrome (if it exists)
    searchplugins (if it exists)

Once the above is done, fire up your torbrowser with the alias shared. This is usually put it in your .bashrc file or depending on whatever terminal interpreter you use, wherever the config file will be.

Welcome to the world of TOR. Now, after a time if you benefit from tor and would like to give back to the tor community, you should look up tor bridges and relay. As the blog post has become long enough, I would end it now and hopefully we can talk about tor bridges and relay some other day.

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