We’ve been building stuff for the Progressive movement for a couple of years now. I’m not sure what the deal was with July 15th, but the heavens opened in terms of hardware resources. I was contacted by a landfill diversion program and they’ve got good, clean laptops that have been retired from corporate use, but they’re a prize for our various organizers, many of whom are disabled or underemployed. There are a couple of ways we can get these out to people and I’ll be starting that on Monday
But best of all, the Computational Troll Dynamics Supercomputer finally arrived …
We got offered this beast back in January and we just now made arrangements to get it in a tornado proof underground facility with generators and multiple internet connections. It’s a proper hosting facility and I really had to do some horse trading to get this done – basically did a bunch of free design work and troubleshooting in exchange for a service that would cost $1,000/month if we had to pay.
This wasn’t always the Computational Troll Dynamics Supercomputer, it started out life doing computational fluid dynamics. Yes, Virginia, some rocket scientists gave us their retired supercomputing cluster so we can turn it into something fun and useful.
Oh, for you hardware nerds: seven dual 3.2GHz Xeon processors with four gigs of ram and an eighty gig hard drive, and the top machine has the same ram and processors, with a terabyte of raid ten storage space.
There are a lot of things one can do with a system like this, but for us it’s basically seven compute servers and one storage machine, rather than the clustered computing resource it was before we got it.
Most of the machines will end up hosting various analytical things we do, but one of them is going to get tasked to Persona Management duty. We’ve had a lot of troubles this last year with people trying to out activists, trying to learn their physical locations so they can be intimidated, and so forth. We’re going to provide a nice, structured place for people who face threats like this to nest. They’ll be able to log in, do whatever they need to do, and not worry about someone coming after them.
Here’s how it works …
First, the system goes behind a VPN server. People must have credentials before they can even get to the point where they can see the machine they’re going to access.
The system gets a version of Linux, and on that there is VMware, a virtualization system. A four gig machine with two Xeons can easily support half a dozen people using it as a place to run an instance of Microsoft Windows.
When someone wants to use the system they’ll send a command via email, telling the system which persona they want to use. The system will load the persona from the central server, then send an email back about two minutes later, telling them which virtual machine is configured for them.
We don’t want to give away where this central system lives, so each virtual machine will be configured to use one of a number of VPN services. These VPNs terminate in a Virtual Private Server. A VPS, running Linux, can be rented on a month to month basis for $20 to $40, providing a remote machine with a public IP assigned to a commercial data center – the perfect hiding place for a busy activist.
Understand what all of this means. Nobody gets to try to brute force the system on the back end – it’s hidden. It doesn’t matter if someone is tracking the IP address a certain personality is using – that dead ends in a shifting cloud of VPS machines. Spearfishing a given virtual machine is possible … except that it’s of little value, since the virtual machines can literally be reloaded from scratch with each use just by copying a file, instead of the hassle of rebuilding one’s personal computer.
There are ways for a skilled opponent to get at people using a system like this, certainly, but these steps raise the bar to the point where only a focused Department of Justice investigation has any hope of identifying the people using the system. And since privacy is not a crime, that’s the end of that.
This is a nuisance for me, building something like this, but given the unethical and illegal conduct flowing from Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Breitbart’s operations, it seems prudent that we take certain steps to ensure that our people can speak their minds without running the risk of harassment at home or at work.