A Semester for Neglected Projects

Despite the fact that this is my last semester before I graduate, the most exciting part for me is that I can finally dedicate a substantial amount of time to hands-on projects. The main reason for this is, I’m working on my capstone project and have another class requiring a hands-on project. In both cases, the projects are very open and meant to encompass about 3 months of work. The only restriction of the second project is that it must be cloud based and for a nonprofit group.

Capstone: FitBit Telemetry, Privacy, and Security Analysis

For my B.S. IT degree, my capstone project is centered on security and privacy of wearable technology like the FitBit. As digital and internet technology expands into new areas of life, an unfathomable amount of data is generated by our comings and goings. Wearable tech is subject to the same concerns as other Internet of Things with the additional issues brought about by collecting biometrics, and health information. So, after a review of current literature, I will start by analyzing telemetry data sent by the FitBit Charge2, and possibly other models. While others have done research in this area I think it will be important to collect and analyze data myself.

One of my concerns with wearables such as fitness trackers is that in order to use them consumers must place full trust in the company selling them the hardware. Heartbeat data is collected, sent to servers, and analyzed in order to provide the user with useful reports. For the FitBit this means turning on location services and Bluetooth in order to authenticate and sync the device. While there is the option to encrypt data sent to the servers, I’d rather connect the tracker to a laptop, or other computing device to handle processing. So my second goal is to develop an application to handle the data locally, without needing to use other’s servers.

What excites me about this project is the chance to learn more about how health data is collected, stored, managed, and presented as information. In addition to that, I’d like to be able to develop programming skills to create a tool that puts control back in the hardware owner’s hands. This project will be the most difficult and research intensive of the two, but that’s why I’m so excited to begin!

Cloud Architecture: Mastodon

A mastodon leaps into the air holding a paper airplane in its trunk. He is surrounded by clouds and paper airplanes. The mastadon is the mascot of the decentralized social media platform Mastodon. This image links to Join Mastodon dot org

While my second project hasn’t been approved yet, the thing I’m really excited to use cloud services for is to set up and maintain a Mastodon instance. Eugene Rochko created Mastodon, which is built on standard protocols to allow any community to set up their own server. These independent servers are interoperable allowing a federation of independent social media servers to arise. Mastodon is free, contains anti-abuse tools, is naturally community moderated, and has no advertisements. This means that unlike Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Patreon, content creators are not restricted or influenced by corporate interests outside of their control.

When I heard about Mastodon, I signed up for an account on Mastodon.Technology and since then, I’ve toyed with the idea of setting up my own instance. However, time and financial constraints meant that I had to keep putting the experiment off for ‘one day’. Particularly in light of deplatforming campaigns, which often become out of control due to the giant games of internet-telephone, which occur with increasing regularity, a community-owned decentralized social media platform is extremely appealing. I believe the internet is at it’s best when people can interact freely, without censorship, without having their intellectual property rights being undermined, and in communities which are not isolated, but can set their own standards.

The strength of hosting the instance on a cloud service is that it will be possible to pay for resources in proportion to their use. Therefore if the server has low usage, or suddenly high usage, service will continue and pricing should stay reasonable. I plan to promote it amongst security and privacy conscious friends, as well as my artist friends who may find themselves increasingly restricted by social media scrutiny and standards.

Hosting the Mastodon instance will provide another real world avenue to understand resource usage and allocation over time, as well as cloud server vulnerabilities. If I can get the server up and active quickly, then my focus will be on maximizing privacy and control for users as well as safety.

Future Updates

As I progress through both of these projects my plan is to document my progress here. Hopefully, it can help someone else, as well as serve as a useful personal record.