Why a personal decentralized server is more important than ever before!

Do you want the big tech (and then the big government) always watching your every move?  https://www.redstate.com/setonmotley/2019/06/27/big-government-big-tech-partnering-track-us-everywhere/

Photography of Person Peeking

Start taking control of your personal e-mail, communications and digital assets on your own server that is easy to setup and get security and peace of mind that you are taking control of your own personal data. Even add a social mediahome automation and AI powered assistant all under your own control. Get in touch with info@pexus.com to learn more how our product and services can help you get off the surveillance grid!

Virtual Private Server - PPS-Mem-2GB-1vCPU-20GB-Plan-M

5 decentralized apps for your Personal Server

5Decent

Personal Server

For every interaction you do on your mobile device application or via an internet browser there is a server somewhere on the Internet that you don’t have much control over. For most applications this remote server just provides an always-on computing server to process your data and send results back to your mobile device or your PC. A simple application is a mail server, an essential communication application that most of us use every day. All it does is collect mail messages on your behalf that you then download to your mobile device or PC for replying, forwarding or long term storage.  Most of  the applications that we use follow a similar pattern.  Remote servers are typically used to store and process  your personal application data. When we use them we are giving up our personal data and privacy to a third party. With computing so cheap, why not own this server in the privacy of your own home or in the cloud as a Virtual Private Server at a very nominal monthly subscription? Owning your own personal server provides full control of your data and keeps companies from mining and misusing your personal data.

There are other personal server applications that provide a compelling case to own a personal server,  such as owning your own personal communication system to do end to end encrypted instant messaging, using voice and video chat, managing your smart home devices, joining a federated social media platform to share your tweets and posts without censorship, and many more. In this article we will look at some of these applications that you can setup and break free from the centralized monolithic internet services and still be connected via federated network to everyone using the similar applications with same standards and protocols.

Decentralized computing with Personal Server

Most  commonly used personal server applications are e-mail, messaging, voice/video chats, social media posts, document/media sharing and, more recently controlling your smart home devices.  Electronic mail was one of the first truly decentralized application ever created. Unfortunately, the “free” services pioneered by Hotmail that was replicated by Gmail and others led to the growth of the surprisingly invasive email services that are currently in practice. While these are easy to sign up and use, such services have become a conduit for leaking personal data. Consumers often unknowingly agree to the fine print and are largely unaware of how their personal data that is harvested through these services are used and in some cases to their own disadvantage.

A continuous feed of personal data from these services whether it is e-mail content, social media posts, web site navigation history, telephonic conversations, text messages, smart home device sensor data, power the data algorithms and machine learning artificial intelligence applications that have the potential to impact every aspect of our personal lives. While there is no argument that such services do enhance everyday conveniences, they also come at a cost of personal privacy which indirectly affects the individual in countless ways, whether it is suppression of political thought and expression, loss of leverage to potential online deals, silent digital discrimination that consumers and citizens are unable to comprehend,  surveillance by repressive regimes, or that well known “creepiness” that everyone has experienced as we navigate and use web applications of today.

There has to be a better way while still leveraging all that technology has to offer us.  Lately, there has been a trend increasingly driven by users and organizations who value digital freedom and privacy to build decentralized applications on the web. Imagine a world where personal computing is completely decentralized but always connected and secured by encryption that is owned by each personal decentralized node. A connected decentralized computing network opens up a whole new set of computing applications that will empower the individual, increase resiliency of all connected services and, at the same time improve personal privacy and digital freedom. Decentralized computing can disrupt the current status quo of centralized computing where little control is given to users.

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End-to-end encrypted decentralized computing can give rise to a hidden web that can make enforcement of laws to prevent trafficking in illegal content difficult.  However such usage is limited to few bad actors. Governments and law enforcement officials routinely cite security and difficulty in law enforcement as a reason why they would want to put controls on encryption and relax privacy protections. But the majority of users are law abiding citizens that would like to interact and communicate personal data without surveillance.  Businesses can also benefit by releasing themselves from the liability of managing their users’ personal data and let users be responsible for their own data on their own personal servers. Of course, easy secure out of the box configuration and protection software on the personals servers are critical for mass adoption.

Decentralized Applications You Can Use Today!

I would like to list a number of freely available decentralized applications with permissible licenses that you can install on your own low cost ($150-$300) personal server (PS) or that old desktop computer you have not touched in while at home or a virtual private server (VPS) in the cloud for under $10/- a month under your complete control.

Postfix based Email Server

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E-mail is one of the most commonly used communication methods used by everyone. Having your own e-mail server requires a domain name. Having an e-mail server that can receive and send your e-mails can protect your data from being scanned by third party service providers. Once the mail server is setup, e-mail can be easily accessed from a smartphone using preinstalled mail client application or a desktop using mail client like Thunderbird, Microsoft Outlook, or Web mail clients such as  Roundcube etc.

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Having a mail server also enables you to create unlimited mail boxes for yourself and your family.  E-mail was always designed to be a decentralized application. The application will still work if the server is temporarily down. The retry mechanism is built into the protocol.

Matrix based end to end encrypted secure communication –

Matrix is an open network for secure end-to-end encrypted decentralized communication. A user can use their own home server or join one of the publicly servers. It allows end-to-end encryption for text, voice, and video communication. Installing a matrix home server for personal and family use can provide protection for personal communication. One can communicate to any other user on another matrix server thereby creating a federation. Plugins are also available and being developed to other popular messaging service and telephone networks.

Matrix

A number of free matrix client software is available on all popular smart phone devices and desktop computers such as Riot.im, Weechat-matrix, nheko, or Quaternion, each of which enables easy connection to any matrix server to facilitate end-to-end (E2E) encrypted  text, voice, and video chats between users on your own home server or any matrix server.

 

OwnCloud CE for document and media sharing –

OwnCloud is one of the largest open source content collaboration platforms. You can sync files from your desktop similarly to DropBox or Google Drive. When you host your own instance of OwnCloud on your server, you own the content and protect it from being available to a third party service provider who may use the content to serve advertisement and potentially exposing private confidential data.

owncloud

Sharing and access to files is possible using one of the many clients available for desktop, iOS, or Android devices. Sharing links to your documents can be done publicly or using protected links on which you can set a password and expiry time. This is an indispensable tool when you don’t want to send documents via e-mail and instead send protected links and communicate the password to the user separately or allows you to set an expiry date for the shared links,  so that they will not be accessible after a specified time.

Mastodon powered decentralized social media –  Mastodon Logotype (Simple).svg

Mastodon is a federated social media platform forked from Gnu Social.  It uses the OStatus or Activity Pub open standard protocol that enables one website to send and receive status updates on another server instance. There is an active development community for Mastodon and it has become quite popular with users who want freedom to post and follow whomsoever they wish without corporate or state censorship. It is an alternative to Twitter and Facebook with complete control and ownership of your content. You are free to post and follow any user in the federated network of Mastodon servers from your own instance of the Mastodon server.  You can also join other server instances that tend to specialize on various subjects. Of course each Mastodon instance owner will have their own policies on what they will allow to post on their servers. Controlling your own servers allows you to create your own policies and allow others to join. Users can be part of any Mastodon server in the network and still be able to follow any other users in the federation. This is a true decentralization concept for digital freedom that still allows users to stay connected.

Screenshot of Mastodon on desktop

Access your Mastodon server or any other Mastodon server instance using a host of clients available for desktop, iOS or Android devices. A full list available here – https://github.com/tleb/awesome-mastodon#clients

OpenHab to power a smart home – @openhab

OpenHAB is a vendor and technology agnostic, open source automation software for your home. OpenHAB uses a pluggable architecture that has support for 200 different technologies and systems supporting thousands of devices. You can install an instance of OpenHAB on your personal server and use the OpenHAB client via the web browser or iOS or Android apps to control smart devices in your home. All this without sending your home data to any third-party services in the cloud.

Demo Main Menu

Demo Widget Overview

 

Challenges and Getting Started

When choosing a personal server to install in your home, look for a small mini PC, ideally a fanless system for quite and long lasting operation. There are various kinds of small mini PC you can buy at Amazon and other places on the internet.  Pexus LLC also offers a few options here.  Look for a minimum of 2GB to 4GB system with at least 40GB hard disk/persistent storage option with an Ethernet port. Monitor/Keyboard/Mouse is not required once you install the basic operating system and have your server connected to your home LAN (Local Area Network). You can do all management using freely available Webmin using a web browser or via SSH/Putty terminal.

If you don’t want to deal with buying hardware and installing it in your own home, you can try a Virtual Private Server (VPS) as your personal server. Prices to host a VPS has come down considerably these days and will continue to drop in future. You can buy a monthly subscription from a host of cloud providers that offers cheap VPS under $10/- month. Linode and Digital Ocean are two cloud provider that offers VPS. A little bit of research on the internet can provide you more options.  I personally use Luna Node which is hosted in Canada. They have been in the business for a number of years and provide great service at very reasonable prices.

You will also need a domain name and DNS management service. A domain name will cost you a $1 a month or so. There are number of Domain Name service providers where you can buy a domain, but you need to see if they charge for managing your domain name. www.dnsexit.com provides free management of your domain so this is good  for personal use. You can manage the domain even if you bought the domain from some other domain name provider. You can create any number of hosts and DNS records such as MX (Mail Handler) and more, which will be required if you host your own mail server and other applications I have mentioned in this article. Hosting a personal server in your home with a dynamic IP address will also require a Dynamic DNS update that is included as part of DNS Exit domain management service.

Putting together these applications on your own requires one to have some basic knowledge of Linux/Unix operating system and some patience. Again if you are complete novice to Linux, check out free resources on the internet for a basic intro to Linux,  like one here .

There are number of installation instructions and getting started recipes out there for these applications. I have created a list of these recipes that will  help you get these applications on your personal server.

  1. Choose a Linux based operating system. You can select from Debian or Ubuntu.
  2. Once you install the basic OS, other required packages for each applications can be easily installed when installing the application.
  3. Install Mail Server – https://www.tecmint.com/install-postfix-mail-server-with-webmail-in-debian/
  4. Install Matrix Synapse – https://www.natrius.eu/dokuwiki/doku.php?id=digital:server:matrixsynapse
  5. Install OwnCloud CE : https://www.digitalocean.com/community/tutorials/how-to-install-and-configure-owncloud-on-debian-9
  6. Install Mastodon : https://docs.joinmastodon.org/administration/installation/
  7. Install OpenHAB : https://www.openhab.org/docs/installation/

Alternative Solutions and Services

Installing and maintaining these applications may feel daunting for everyday users. Turnkey solutions for some of these applications are available from various companies. For example Matrix-based personal communication server hosting can be purchased from Upcloud.com, likewise OwnCloud hosting is available from a number of hosting providers.  Mastodon hosting is available from Mastohost

Most of the above providers are point solutions and may not have the flexibility to add all the applications discussed in this article. For complete flexibility you will have to have complete control of the Virtual Private Server.

Pexus LLC offers an easy configurator application to configure most of these applications easily. The configuration application includes wizards for Email Server, Web Mail, and Postfix Admin configuration, OwnCloud install and configuration and many more operations. New applications are being added on regular basis. Pexus custom Debian OS with the configuration application is available for free for DIY setup on your own PC hardware at home. For more information checkout https://store.pexus.net/solutions/sol-pps

Alternatively Pexus LLC also can provision a personal server as a Virtual Private Server with the custom distribution and configuration application in the cloud. For more information on  Virtual Private Server option visit : https://hosting.pexus.net/

Author:

profile-picPradeep Nambiar is passionate about enabling users to use secure personal servers to create a decentralized computing experience  to further individual digital freedom on their own terms. He is the product architect of Patriot PS Personal Server and in his free time as one of the principal of Pexus LLC explores solutions with compelling use cases for increased adoption of personal servers to build a decentralized web. He also volunteers his time to Information Systems and Security Association – Capital of Texas Chapter at Austin,TX

In his day job he is an information security professional working for Altran – A global Engineering and R&D provider. Mr. Nambiar manages secure engineering programs that help create secure software products and cloud applications. NOTE: All opinions, suggestions and thoughts expressed in this article are his and not those of his current employer Altran.

Editor:

SidPic Sidharth Nair is an incoming 2019 Freshmen to University of Texas at Austin, TX, pursuing Computer Engineering. He is an avid computer gamer,  Minecraft and Runescape are his favorites. He is passionate about computing technology and Math.  His current interests include Java, multi-threaded programming and cryptography.

 

AI/ML at the expense of Privacy and Security ?! –

Innovation is good for all. Building security and having a concern for personal privacy is a must to sustain trust in products and services. There is a mad rush to integrate AI/ML (Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning)  into everything; if the sheer number of CES 2019 Alexa and Google Home offering is any indication.  A good dig by Apple via this billboard at CES 2019 says it all:  iPhone Privacy Pledge Ad  Hope Apple sticks with its pledge on protecting consumer data and provide privacy enabled products and services even for a slightly higher a price compared to it’s competition.

AI/ML requires huge amount of real world data. AI/ML is sucking up large amounts of personal data every moment we are connected to internet services most of these are free such as @gmail, @facebook, @yahoo and the likes. Consumers don’t know how their data is being collected, analyzed and used in ways that puts them at a disadvantage. Opting out is difficult and most don’t care as there is very little awareness. In addition to news of misuse of personal data by so many companies, security breaches exposes the data to bad actors doing long term damage to consumers.

There is an effort to protect consumer by creating products and services that adhere to privacy by design for consumer goods and services : https://www.iso.org/committee/6935430.html This is a good start. Days of profiting from personal data should come to an end one day. Consumers get these products for free or very nominal prices without realizing how much they give up.  There is a huge opportunity to create products and services to charge more and still profit by educating the consumers that the additional price is worth and go a long way in protecting their personal data.

When signing up for any service or buying any IOT (Internet of Things) connected or home consumer item that promise an always on connection,   consider and ask how your data is collected, sent where? and how it can potentially be misused, stolen and what protection you have? Is it worth the convenience without security and privacy? For example E-mail is the life blood of communication for every user these days. Have you ever wondered how free email service providers such as @gmail @yahoo mail etc. do with your every intimate conversation that you have with your friends, business associates, doctors, real estate agents etc. ?! They will never disclose what they collect and what they sell? There is gold mine of information that power their AI devices and services exposing every personal information that they can lay their hands on. They may even argue  every user that signed up for their services have accepted their terms and conditions that gives them the consent to do what they do. How many read those fine print?. Another example is streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu – have you wondered how much of personal preferences and data can be collected and fed to AI/ML engines on what you watch, the times you watch, where you watch etc. Troves of this data can be sold to so many companies to recommend products and services that can capitalize and expose your privacy at your expense. Beyond this social profiling can also affect your political and thought freedom as China is already using collected data to give you a behavioral and social score. While US govt. is not doing this today, but politicians can misuse and use this to control population that can slowly chip way the freedoms we love so dearly.

Pexus LLC is always working to create products and services that protect and enable consumers to take control of their own data. We are enabling users to host their own e-mail server at home on in the cloud using a virtual private server completely under their control. We make it easy by enabling a more de-centralized computing the way it was meant to be.

Check out personal server solutions from Pexus LLC at https://www.pexus.com/patriotps and https://store.pexus.net  Contact us at sales@pexus.com to learn more or explore products and services at https://store.pexus.net

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Password Manager in the Cloud or Ransomware forever?

Splash ID (https://splashid.com/) is  password manager that I had used for years and have been very satisfied with the software. Now they are also jumping into the cloud in the hopes for continued revenue stream in the form of subscriptions. I don’t have an issue with that, but what really ticked me off was the forced update and forced subscription to continue to access my existing data on my mobile device.

I had been using this software with a desktop version that would sync with my mobile app on iOS. Then one fine day I realized the mobile app got updated without any warning or an option to prevent this automatic update. The updated software now forces the user to buy a subscription and does not let the user access the existing stored data. It was a forced update and changed the initial use policy to which I agreed when I purchased the app in the first place long time ago. Now the update doesn’t let me access my existing critical data. To me it seems like a ransomware where the user is locked out of their data, unless you pay to subscribe. I had written to the CEO of the Splash ID – Morgan Slain who has not responded to my e-mail. I think this is an unethical practice by this software company who does not provide an option to stay with the current usage policy of their software and forcing people to update and demanding a subscription to continue using the existing data stored in their application which was purchased without having to subscribe.

My personal opinion is to stay away from password managers that store data in the cloud in the name of convenience.  Your data  will be much safer on your desktop/laptop with local sync than putting all your password data remotely and avoid paying for the ransomware like subscription forever.

Checkout the free desktop password manager KeePaas http://keepass.info/ which I will be migrating to. It also has  paid companion  mobile apps that would help sync the data between the desktop version and mobile version.

Update – I tried KeepPass Touch as a the iOS mobile companion that can sync locally over Wi Fi with your Free Desktop version of KeePass database file and carry your latest KeePass DB on the go. It is worth 0.99 to remove the ad for usage. Finally got rid of the Splash ID ransomware.

Personal Email on your terms!

Start the new year with personal email on your terms. Amy can do it, so can you – It is easy – Get this general purpose personal server, get yourself a domain name, host your domain free at http://www.dnsexit.com/ and configure your mail server on your personal server in the privacy of your own home in just 4 clicks:

You know you are a cool techie, but..

You know you are a cool techie, but you still use that free e-mail and that free drop box like services even when you know there is nothing free in life. You worry about losing control of your personal conversations in the e-mail which can surface one day and may haunt you or worry about the security breaches targeted at file storage services that may expose your confidential documents. You know you can leverage your intimate IT knowledge to take control of your data better but don’t have the time to. Now there is a solution. Check out how easy it is to get a personal server up and running. You can start with a free evaluation using the Patriot PS Personal Server Virtual Appliance and just check things out. You may decide to bring life back to your old abandoned desktop PC that you no longer use and turn it into a personal server with single click installable  Patriot PS Personal Server ISO image or even go with the all in one Patriot PS Personal Server System – that is not only small, compact, but fan less too  for that quite 24×7 operation that you need from a personal server.

Show off your techie instincts without sweating it out, play the internet on your terms knowing a personal server is there to serve you when you need it at home or away from home. Get ready for Internet of Things (IOT) without sending your thing data out to remote servers for those prying marketers.

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Your Server, Your Data, Your Terms! ®

Keep your personal data in your home..

The advent of the internet since the 90s have slowly lured you into giving up all your personal data, your personal profile, your personal interactions with your friends and associates that once lived safely on your personal computer in your home  into massive servers farms owned by  giant IT companies  in exchange for free services such as web e-mail, photo sharing, social event sharing etc.  They are telling you all you need is a dumb client devices and we shall manage all your data. You should not expect any privacy now that we are in control of your data — Really ! They are telling you – see we provide full SSL security and your personal data is safe with us — Really!  what happens once the data reaches their servers ? Once on their servers it is all in plain text again.. so that they can use all available analytical engines to dissect every word you say or every picture you take or every post you do — but at the same time assuring you;  your data is safe on their servers except they reserve the right to purge or block anything they feel is not right or comply with government agencies to offer your data without you knowing about it,  don’t worry about your first amendment  or any amendment, just read their privacy policy if you care.

Well now you don’t have to be at the mercy of the these remote servers and and their policies. Why not own your own personal server.. Set it up as an always on service that is there to serve you and your family.. set it up to provide you secure e-mail service, set it up as a personal cloud and use it to share and sync data from your client computers at home or office – your server in the privacy of your home.. give access to data to only whom you want – your data is only your business — use it to monitor and control your smart home – but without sending the data to the remote servers.

Check out the personal server from Pexus – Patriot PS – Personal Cloud & Automation Server – Get your data back in your home.. where it belongs– if somebody needs it give it on your terms ! We know this is a small step.. there is more to come.. more applications that will reside on your server and help you manage your data in your home. Come and be part of a new era in personal computing..