Back in 2009, Opera had announced an innovative service called Unite, which enables anyone to host stuff from their own computers using a browser extension that creates links to the local file system. I’ve played around with it, and at the time thought it was a pretty cool feature.
Looking at my old blog entries three years later, I’ve just realised the concept is loosely related to something I’ve been working on for several months, and it’s also a taste of how social networks might look when IPv6 becomes the Internet’s default address system (IPv6 multicasting and all that).
Opera claims that Unite turns devices into servers, but strictly speaking it doesn’t. Unite is actually a little more innovative than that. It uses the Command and Control server model I’ve recently posted about, in which two clients communicate across the Internet by establishing connections to something with a fixed address, or where a proxy relays traffic between remote access malware and the attacker. In the case of Opera Unite, the users technically have full control over what they share, subject to a shitload of Terms and Conditions related to content.
The way it works (I think) is like this:
1. User starts the Opera browser and activates the Unite extension.
2. The extension checks which services and local file system paths were defined by the user.
3. Unite extension establishes a connection with Opera’s server in Norway, and tells it which services it’s running.
4. Links to the extension and running services are listed on the User’s MyOpera page. The address http://<device name>.<user name>.operaunite.com is mapped to the relevant IP address and port on the local machine.
5. Others click on whatever links, and Opera relays traffic between them and the local services provided by the extension.
Why is all this important for secure comms? The Internet should enable anyone to freely communicate and share files, but we’re in danger of losing that through a torrent of ‘intellectual property’ legislation, censorship and surveillance, and the trend towards that over the past year has been worrying. Part of the problem is the Internet’s too centralised. We rely heavily on servers even for basic communications, and their IP addresses are easily blocked. One solution would involve discarding static IP addressing in favour of distributed gateways updated by servers that regularly change their own addresses. Unite has demonstrated it could be done with a simple browser extension accessible and transparent to the average person.