Will Electronic Eavesdropping Become a M-o-o-t Point?

A group of self-proclaimed civil libertarians have launched an effort to create an OS and a set of applications that prevent computer eavesdropping and data collection, even by government agencies. The new open-source OS, dubbed "M-o-o-t," will ship in the form of a single CD_ROM that you can boot on popular PC hardware platforms. The CD-ROM will contain the OS and a set of applications that includes an email client, word processor, spreadsheet program, graphics program, and other unspecified software.

The M-o-o-t CD-ROM must remain in the computer while the system is operating; the OS will shut down if you remove the CD. After booting, M-o-o-t will disallow access to a computer's local storage systems. Instead, the OS will store its data off site in server "havens," which can be any server that allows encrypted FTP access, and files can be split and stored on several remote servers. The idea behind offsite storage is that if an intruder seizes a person's computer, the computer won't contain any data or keys, and if an intruder compromises a remote haven, the haven won't contain complete files.

The OS will use encrypted communication transports and an encrypted data storage format, which might be based on the Stenographic File System (SFS) developed at the University of Cambridge. All the related data encryption keys that M-o-o-t uses will also be stored offsite. Developers say that the communication layer will use nine algorithms, and that "data will be stored symmetrically encrypted with a last-ditch key, encrypted with a deniable cipher, hidden stenographically in fixed-size blocks of random data and split m-of-n between data havens. \[Data\] will undergo further encryption when it is being transmitted."

The M-o-o-t creators say they are building the platform in response to tools and laws, such as the FBI's Carnivore software and Britain's Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which allows interception of computer data. Britain seeks to enact Part 3 of RIPA this year, which, among other things, would let law enforcement officials demand access to a user's encryption keys.

M-o-o-t developers think the new OS will help guarantee privacy by storing data outside the reach of government agencies. However, some critics of the project think that M-o-o-t could be used as an impetus for governments to institute still further-reaching laws and legal agreements between various countries to facilitate more effective data collection.

The M-o-o-t project initially launched in late 2000, and a first release of the OS was slated for July 2001. However, to date, no official downloadable code is available, but the developers now say they intend to release the new OS on the same day Britain enacts RIPA Part 3. Britain's Home Office hopes to publish draft code for RIPA Part 3 in June 2002, and it then goes before the British Parliament for consideration.

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