February 18, 2002 6:00 PM PST
Human rights application not finished
In its first public unveiling, the Peekabooty project was shown to open-source programmers and social hackers at CodeCon in San Francisco.
The demonstration made evident, however, that the program has a way to go, and project leader Paul Baranowski estimated he and programmer Joey De Villa have as much as six months of work ahead of them before the program is usable.
"The good news is that we are both working on this full time," he said. "We have no other jobs at this point."
The project promises to create an underground railroad for Web information that may be censored by some nations. Based on a peer-to-peer network of computers, Peekabooty would allow a person to get information from the Internet that they may not normally be able to access.
Like many peer-to-peer networks, Peekabooty creates anonymity by sending a request for data without an originating Internet address. Each computer on the network passes that request along, recording only the address of the previous computer that passed the data, until it reaches its destination. Then, the data is sent back through the network to the requester.
The program also hides the data by masquerading it as an e-commerce transaction by using a secure form of the normal HTTP data that is passed between Web sites, said Baranowski, who hoped that countries could not easily stop e-commerce transactions without some legal repercussions.
"A lot of countries are tied to the WTO (World Trade Organization)," he said. "So if they cut off e-commerce companies, then other nations will be unhappy about that."
The hiding method can also be changed fairly easily, he said.
The project, originally announced by hacker-group-cum-performance-artists Cult of the Dead Cow nearly two years ago and developed by a small group of social hackers known as Hacktivismo, has now been left to Baranowski and DeVilla after work on Peekabooty stagnated under Hacktivismo.
A small group of programmers focused solely on finishing Peekabooty had become necessary, Baranowski said. "Hacktivismo is good with thinking up new projects," but not particularly good on follow-through.
Heartened by the phenomenal success of the SETI@Home distributed computing application, which crunches radio telescope data to look for intelligent patterns, Baranowski decided to add a screensaver to the program.
The screensaver shows stylized cartoon bear icons for each computer connected to the user's PC. Gagged bears are censored computers and bears wearing shades are anonymous network nodes.
The software in its latest form can be downloaded from its new site.