Awesome Stuff: The Internet… Who Needs It?

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As a growing number of web users have become more security-conscious, there’s been an explosion of VPNs and encryption tools and other security services for the internet. But what about a device that lets you bypass the internet entirely? That’s the goal of RATS, the Radio Transceiver System, an open source communication tool for the security-obsessed and/or the internet-bereft.

The Good

The RATS is simple: it’s a small antenna that connects to computers by USB and lets them send encrypted messages and file transfers directly, via radio transmission. There are two obvious advantages to this: firstly, it doesn’t rely on any network being up or even the power staying on — as long as your laptop has some batteries, you can send and receive — and secondly, it’s a level of security and privacy that trumps most of what you can do online. Apart from being entirely separated from the internet, it employs AES-256 encryption with a randomized salt so even the same message sent repeatedly will produce completely different encrypted data every time.

The range of the RATS antenna is about a kilometer in a city, but it can also be connected to superior antennas and, in areas with no obstacles, achieve ranges above 5km. Obviously this means it isn’t suited to everything, but alongside the internet it could be extremely powerful for certain local applications in urban neighborhoods, workplaces, and other situations where we normally use the robust global internet just to send short messages to people within walking distance. But perhaps more than anything it could be a boon for people living under governments that censor and monitor online communications, allowing local groups to coordinate without so much as touching the compromised networks.

The Bad

As noted, the RATS obviously isn’t for everyone or every situation, and the Kickstarter project page certainly lines up with the fact that this isn’t a regular consumer product. If anything, it feels a little more like a hobby project, with the pitch video seemingly incomplete and the fundraising target extremely low. This could raise a few red flags for cautious Kickstarter backers, though in truth it feels more like a labor of love by the Swedish creator, and is somewhat refreshing in a sea of crowdfunded technology with overproduced pitch videos and product pages full of PR speak.

One other concern with the RATS is the legality of the radio transmissions themselves. The software includes a system for downloading XML-based lists of available frequencies and selecting the appropriate transmitter power, but since this allocation differs from country to country, it will be up to the end user to make sure they aren’t breaking any broadcast laws.

The Open

One of the first things early backers asked about RATS was why its software wasn’t open source. The creator responded, saying that if that’s what people want then it’s what they’ll get, and has now pledged to open-source the software as soon as its complete and the device is shipped. It would have been even cooler to see it go through a full open source development process and be accessible from the start, but it’s great to see a creator rapidly and positively respond to these requests (especially since open source software makes especially good sense for a device like this, as it’s certainly not the kind of thing that should rely on security-by-obscurity).

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