This Software Developer Is Making a Surveillance-Free Cell Phone Network

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It’s hard to believe that only two decades ago, cell phones were luxury items that were too expensive and/or clunky to be marketable. Today, it is no small stretch to say cell phones are an intractable facet of modern life—we use them not only to make calls and send text messages, but also to browse the web, make payments, and navigate the world.

Yet as cell phone technologies have become more sophisticated, so have the ways they can be used to violate the privacy of their users. Indeed, cell phones are one of the most powerful surveillance tools ever created, a portal for law enforcement authorities to spy on the communications and location of cell phone owners without much difficulty. Denver Gingerich, a programmer in New York City, wants to change that.

Earlier this year, Gingerich published the code for Sopranica, a DIY, surveillance-free cell phone network. At the moment, it consists of a protocol that allows anyone to register for a phone number to make calls and send texts over the internet totally anonymously. In the future, this protocol will be paired with a network of small radio devices run by members of a community that will replace users’ reliance on cell phone towers run by telecommunications companies.

Although just released to the public in January, Gingerich said he’s been working on Sopranica for years.

“I used landlines growing up, but I ended up going to a university far from where I grew up and I decided long distance would cost too much when I wanted to call home,” Gingerich told me.

To get around this issue, Gingerich bought a session initiation protocol (SIP) hard phone, which is basically like a normal telephone except it makes calls over the internet. He then bought a SIP ATA for his parents, which converts normal phones into devices that can make calls over the internet. Voilà: he was able to do long distance calls with his family over the internet and avoid the steep calling fees.

In 2009, not too long after Gingerich had graduated from university, he discovered Google Voice, which allowed him to text his friends’ cell phones from his laptop. For calling, he stuck with his SIP hard phone. This worked well enough for a few years, but Gingerich realized he couldn’t depend on Google to keep their VoIP service alive forever.

“As Google built and killed projects, I started to get a little anxious about the viability of Google Voice in the long term,” Gingerich told me. “So I started building the first version of Sopranica and that became my replacement for Google Voice.”

This initial prototype, which Gingerich began using around 2014, laid the foundations for JMP, the version of Sopranica he released earlier this year. Using JMP, anyone can visit Sopranica’s website, get a free phone number, and then download any app that can run an open-source instant messaging client called Jabber on their normal cell phone. Neither JMP nor Jabber requires identifying information to register, which means that anyone can get a cell phone number that isn’t linked to their real name for free and anonymous calling and text messaging.

At the moment, Gingerich is working with 15 collaborators from around the world to develop the next phase of Sopranica, called WOM. WOM will consist of small radio units that anyone can buy and plug into their internet router at home. These radio units can then be placed in windows or on the outside of buildings to act as internet access points for anyone on the Sopranica network. This will essentially create the physical infrastructure necessary for Sopranica to expand.

For near-field communications, Gingerich also plans on developing a meshing protocol to allow Sopranica users to pass data from user to user until it reaches its destination.

The next phase of Sopranica is still in development and it will likely be several months, if not years, before it is widely deployed enough to actually use.

“The biggest challenge is just getting people motivated to switch away from their existing cell carriers,” Gingerich said. “We want to replace all aspects of the cell phone network with their freedom-respecting equivalents so we can have the same functionality without having to give up all of that privacy that we have to give up right now. I foresee that taking place in a lot of ways, but most of them are further down the road.”

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