How cryptography and peer-to-peer networks contribute value to society

By: Omar Metwally, M.D.

3/13/2022

Objective:

To illustrate the utility of cryptography and peer-to-peer networking in protecting the authenticity, integrity, and availability of information.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowflake#/media/File:Snowflake_macro_photography_1.jpg

1. Information is the useful synthesis of data.

Our email inboxes, phones, and hard drives are constantly filling up with data; however, collecting, organizing, and archiving the useful nuggets of information in an ocean of junk requires time, money, and energy. The number of useful emails in my inboxes is a small fraction of the total number of emails, which are mostly spam. I don’t pay for extra storage out of principle. Why fund a company whose spam filters are more likely to block important emails than spam? Why perpetuate the problem?

Similarly with the high-resolution photos which take up so much memory on my phone and hard disk: most of these photographs do not deserve the 2+ MB of memory they occupy on my phone and PC. I’ll commonly snap a photo of a beautiful landscape, a critter I encounter on a walk, or something I need to remember for a short period of time (for example, where I parked). Backing up every photo and video on my phone seems wasteful considering that, like my email inbox, only a small proportion are media that I actually want to preserve. The alternative, however, would be to manually go through each of my inboxes and every photo I take on my phone and make a conscious decision whether to keep or delete a file. This latter strategy often proves far too time-intensive to pursue on a consistent basis.

2. Data that exists in only one location is as good as gone.

I once asked a colleague how he backs up his digital information. “I’ve never needed to back up my data,” he answered. This is a fallacy. Every possible failure of a digital system will eventually and inevitably occur. Hard disks fail all the time. People accidentally delete and lose files. Important bits of information drown in oceans of spam and junk, to the extent that locating them becomes practically impossible. Networked systems get hacked. People lose or upgrade their phones and change platforms, only to realize years later that they never backed up their old Android or iPhone which is now resting in a landfill.

Preserving information in a way that facilitates future retrieval requires:

– a consistent schema for organizing files and directories

– multiple physical (e.g. HDDs and SSDs) and cloud-based storage systems

– a consistent version control schema

– consistency in backing up information to each of these media

In other words, if you really cherish your data, you need to be organized, anticipate what can (and inevitably will) go wrong, and back up consistently. If it’s important information, chances are you’ll also want to encrypt your disks in a way that prevents unauthorized parties from accessing the data, without accidentally losing access to your own data.

3. Cryptography is arguably one of the most useful and powerful technologies in modern-day computing.

Modern cryptography is the basis for digital tools that protect the authenticity and integrity of information. While information ends up in the wrong hands all the time, encryption ensures that only the intended recipient can “unlock” the information. To lay people, “encryption” may conjure messaging apps designed for protect one’s privacy. However, another compelling use case of cryptography, which may be unknown to lay computer users, is to mathematically prove the authenticity of digital information. Algorithms such as SHA256 [https://csrc.nist.gov/glossary/term/SHA_256] can generate a mathematically unique string of numbers and letters, which can serve as a “fingerprint” for a file’s authenticity. Altering even the slightest letter in a document changes this cryptographic fingerprint.

Just like no two individuals have the same fingerprint, so do non-identical files yield unique cryptographic hashes. For instance, an attorney who needs to ensure the authenticity of a collection of evidence can use a cryptographic hashing algorithm such as SHA256 to prove beyond a doubt that the data do indeed represent what the attorney claims they do. However, it’s important to note that these hashing algorithms do not necessarily preserve the actual data to which they refer. It is still upon the attorney to back up the evidence in a secure and redundant manner. Furthermore, the attorney must ensure that each backup is identical. Although a small discrepancy may or may not be consequential in court (for instance, accidentally adding a space, period, or comma may or may not alter the interpreted meaning of a document), the cryptographic hash will be altered, negating the utility of the hashing algorithm.

4. Distributing and decentralizing information is a key value proposition of blockchain networks

Encryption and hashing preceded cryptocurrencies. Hash functions, which are defined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, are generally free to use and are accessible via command line on any computer. Arguably the biggest value proposition of blockchain networks, on a technical level, is their capacity to add verifiable and tamper-proof timestamps to cryptographic hashes, by propagating a verifiable and identical chronological database across numerous peers around the world. Being able to reliably exchange information with thousands of computers across the world, spanning many different geographic areas, yields redundancy that would be implausible to replicate by entrusting any one party to create thousands of backups, spread them around the world, ensure that they can be accessed reliably, and also ensure the integrity of the original information. In reality, governments restrict access to online content all the time. People in affected locations can use tools such as VPNs to try and circumvent these limitations, but as long as a critical number of nodes is online, the information will not be lost, even if it is inaccessible from a certain geographic region due to inability to run a p2p client.

Cryptocurrencies create financial incentives for people to volunteer hard disk space, broadband, their time, skills, computing resources, and energy to contribute to a peer-to-peer network. Rather than relying on one party to ensure the integrity, authenticity, and availability of data (which is typically hosted in a relatively small number of geographic locations), blockchains are essentially distributed databases (also known as “distributed ledgers” when used in the context of exchanging digital value).

5. Ensuring information availability is another value proposition of blockchain networks

I have been experimenting with IPFS (“InterPlanetary Filesystem” [https://ipfs.io/]), a peer-to-peer file-sharing networking, since 2017. Each byte stored directly on a blockchain network is relatively expensive. While all blockchains are peer-to-peer networks, not all peer-to-peer networks are blockchain. IPFS, an example of a peer-to-peer network that is not a blockchain, allows users to easily upload directories and files to the network, where they are relayed from node to node. IPFS itself is free to use; that is, there is no subscription fee to cover hosting costs because volunteers around the world share in hosting the data. However, this utopian dream of “share everything, preserve everything” ignores the reality of the cost of hosting data. Bandwidth, disk space, processing power, and electricity cost money. Data hosted on IPFS can be “pinned” using a 3rd-party service, but this crosses the line of decentralization and places trust in a 3rd-party service to ensure the persistence of these data. Furthermore, it’s unclear to me why a 3rd-party service would volunteer their resources freely without charging a hosting fee.

Filecoin is a cryptocurrency developed by the creators of IPFS (Protocol Labs) which aims to solve this missing economic incentive. The Filecoin protocol aims to incentivize miners (people with a lot of computing power and storage capacity) to host others’ data by rewarding them with the Filecoin cryptocurrency in exchange for running software that can mathematically prove that the hosted data (1) exist on their hard drive(s), and (2) can be retrieved by the party that is paying Filecoin in exchange for their data to be hosted.

I downloaded the Filecoin client (“Lotus”) and spent several days running IPFS and Lotus in parallel in order to see if hosting a 113 MB file on Filecoin was a better alternative to using traditional cloud servers, and also to learn about the economics of the Filecoin ecosystem. I provide here my impressions of this limited experience without a recommendation for or against any cryptocurrency.

It took me a few hours to sync the Filecoin mainnet to completion. I had to download a snapshot of the chain in order to sync, and I could not locate a SHA256 checksum of the snapshot used to sync. I was unable to sync by connecting to peers directly. Using snapshots hosted on a centralized server which are not associated with published checksums is never best practice because there’s otherwise no way to ensure the authenticity or integrity of what one thinks they are downloading.

The Slack channels used by the Filecoin community are active, and I received timely answers to my questions by knowledgeable contributors. Once the Filecoin chain was synced, I proceeded to upload a 113 MB file using its IPFS hash (that is, the file was already uploaded to IPFS, and I used the IPFS hash to point to the data). The process of uploading data generally entails (1) identifying storage providers (miners) who are willing and able to host one’s data; (2) uploading the data to the storage providers; and (3) paying a transaction fee to upload the data. These transactions are referred to as “deals” and can range from 180 to 540 days in duration. Miners can specify parameters such as the minimum and maximum file size they are willing to host, duration of hosting, and their cost per Gigabyte per time period (in the case of Filecoin, per 30-second epoch). Retrieving data involves a separate set of processes, but I haven’t yet made it that far.

In Filecoin, miners host others’ data, which may or may not be encrypted. This is a potential legal gray area because miners generally don’t know what they’re hosting, and miners are often located in jurisdictions separate from the party seeking hosting services. Deals can be arranged on a Slack channel or third-party reputation marketplaces, but rarely does one know whom exactly they’re dealing with. What happens if a party is uploading content that is illegal in their jurisdiction? Or perhaps legal in their jurisdiction but forbidden in the miner’s jurisdiction?

The process of trying to host data on Filecoin is far more complex than using traditional cloud servers. The average person is unlikely to succeed without a strong commitment to the steep learning curve involved in using these command-line tools. Some of the complexities can theoretically be simplified using third-party services, but this can potentially negate the advantages of using an incentivized p2p network in the first place.

The Filecoin protocol incentivizes miners to contribute their computing resources (and time) to host others’ data by rewarding them for reliably hosting others’ data and financially punishing them by deducting penalties from the collateral they have to put up. Due to the relatively early stage of development of these tools, Filecoin documentation recommends making multiple deals with up to 10 different miners to ensure the availability of one’s data, in case one or more miners’ do not make good on their deal.

On my first attempt to upload a 113 MB file, the “deal” failed for unclear reasons, despite my attempts to troubleshoot the Lotus client’s behavior with the help of technical support volunteers. My starting balance was one Filecoin (1 FIL). Here are some numbers central to the (failed) transaction:

Initial wallet balance: 1 FIL

Cost of hosting 113 MB file with a particular miner for 180 days: 0.01296 FIL ($0.225504, at an exchange rate of $17.4 per FIL on March 12th, 2022).

Wallet balance after the escrow funds were returned to my wallet (i.e. after the deal failed):

0.996353443699298176 FIL

Difference between initial and final wallet balance = amount of “gas” burned (network transaction fees):

0.006646556300701767 FIL

Therefore, 51.285% of the original proposed cost of hosting the file (0.01296 FIL) was burned in the form of gas. In other words, 0.006646556300701767 FIL / 0.01296 FIL = 0.5128515664121734

While the amount of burned gas may seem trivial, it accounts for a majority of the cost of the failed deal (51.285%)! If the goal is to establish 10 deals with 10 different miners, then the cost of gas associated with failed deals can quickly add up.

6. Mathematical proof of data availability may or may not be necessary

There are certainly cases in which it’s necessary to prove mathematically not just the integrity and authenticity of data (for example, using hashing functions such as SHA256), but also the availability of the data. Filecoin aims to mathematically prove both the existence and availability of data hosted on a peer to peer network while incentivizing miners to uphold deals with parties who need data hosted. However, there are also many instances where a SHA256 checksum uploaded to a blockchain with an immutable timestamp is more than sufficient. In this latter case, the responsibility of organizing, archiving, and maintaining identical copies of these data falls upon the party willing to pay for the weight of this proof. As mentioned above, there are instances where entrusting miners to store and deliver content may be undesirable for legal reasons, privacy, or simply the need to trust that at least one miner with whom one conducts a deal will uphold their end of the deal.

In conclusion, cryptography and peer-to-peer networking are powerful technologies that can help protect the integrity of information and ensure its persistence. Various blockchain networks use financial incentives in different ways to provide a variety of value propositions to network participants. Clearly understanding one’s goals as the relate to information preservation/exchange, and clearly understanding each network’s value proposition, is key to making good investments of one’s time and resources.

Beware ViaSat. Beware the Predator.

By: Omar Metwally, MD

Objective: To illustrate ViaSat, Inc‘s predatory business practices and warn other potential victims.

Hi ViaSat. You stepped on me thinking I was a tiny ant, like all the other tiny ant customers you are stepping on. The truth is, I’m a barbed hook.

July 2020: The pandemic is striking with full force, and I am working 100-hour weeks volunteering in COVID-19 medical units overflowing with very sick patients while completing a Federally-funded research project. Fast forward to March 2022: the world is recovering from the pandemic, and I am getting harassed for the first time in my life by debt collectors trying to collect bogus debt on behalf of ViaSat, Inc.

Beware a predatory, disreputable, Federally-funded company called ViaSat, also known as Excede or Wild Blue Internet.

During my last few months as Principal Investigator of Logisome, Inc’s Federally-funded research project, I signed up for a satellite internet service called ViaSat back in July 2020. The satellite dish was installed on the roof of my home, where I was conducting my responsibilities as PI and volunteering as an Internal Medicine Physician in overflowing COVID-19 medical units.

A technician arrived on Thursday, July 16th, 2020, and installed the satellite dish and equipment. I asked the technician to stay and make sure that the internet connection worked before leaving, but he insisted on leaving immediately. The internet speeds were initially so slow that it felt like a blast back to the 1990s. They were too slow to even load ViaSat’s homepage to look up their customer support phone number — and far too slow to conduct any sort of telemedicine.

I called ViaSat’s customer support in order to solve this internet speed problem and was on the line for nearly 2 hours after the installation trying to troubleshoot extremely slow speeds. The ViaSat technical support person remotely reset my modem, after which point I immediately and permanently lost all access to the internet.

After several hours waiting on hold, escalating emails to ViaSat’s management, and a complaint filed with the Better Business Bureau, they finally agreed to cancel service. I received written assurances that all fees in the contract had been waived and that my service was canceled. They sent me a UPS return label, and I sent back their equipment.

Now I’m receiving text messages from a debt collector saying that my ViaSat account has been sent to a debt collection agency called Halsted Financial. ViaSat did not send me any communications at any point claiming any debts owed to them. Here is one of numerous texts I’ve received from a party claiming to be a debt collector.

One of many text messages from a party claiming to be a debt collector on behalf of ViaSat, Inc. SMS date: 3/4/2022

Why is the U.S. government (FCC) funding a predatory company that does not deliver what they promise, that wastes people’s resources, and that inflicts harm on hard-working individuals with better things to do than deal with bogus debt and the financial and legal damages resulting from these disreputable business practices? How is this company still in business???

Why would you trust ViaSat to support critical infrastructure if you can’t even trust it for grade school homework?

ViaSat touts itself as a reliable internet solution for hospitals and the military. But if you can’t trust the company for submitting your kids’ online homework, why should ViaSat be trusted with people’s lives, health and safety? If you are considering signing up for ViaSat, chances are you live in a remote or undeveloped area in the United States. If you have any other choice of internet service provider, be assured that these alternatives are likely better options. If you have to decide between ViaSat and having no Internet connectivity, then be assured that you are probably better off without Internet.

ViaSat is not a legitimate company that earns a livelihood by selling useful services to customers. Rather, it is a shell of a company hiding the scam that it is: crooks that make money buy fooling people into contracts, breaking their own agreements, and inventing bogus debts so that debt collection agencies can do their dirty work. It is a disgraceful farce.

If you are one of countless victims of ViaSat’s fraudulent business practices, I urge you to call a lawyer and take legal action. A class action lawsuit is ripe for filing. Do not trust a company that lies to resolve BBB complaints, only to spin up bogus debts and send innocent people to debt collection agencies years later. Let’s use all legal means available to us to show this sham company that we are here to collect and make them shed what they owe.

Update on 3/14/2022:

Service agreement between ViaSat, Inc. and Logisome, Inc.

Despite the fact that the service agreement (signed excerpt above) was between ViaSat and Logisome, Inc, ViaSat is fraudulently attributing fictional debt to me as an individual. This was an agreement between two companies. At no point did I conduct business with ViaSat as an individual or enter any agreements with them as an individual. Yet despite these facts, they are damaging my personal credit.

Collection Letter attributing fictional debt to an individual who never did business with ViaSat

Update 05-24-2022:

From: FCC

To: Omar Metwally

Date of Correspondence: April 25th, 2022

“””

This ticket (#5338127) has been updated.

Hi Omar,

Here is the response we received from your carrier.

Thank you,

FCC Consumer Complaints

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer & Government Affair Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, SW
Washington D.C. 20554 Response via FCC Electronic Response Program

Re: Omar Metwally, Complaint Ticket No. 5338127

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for bringing Mr. Metwally’s complaint to our attention.

The Customer Agreement, signed by Mr. Omar Metwally on July 16, 2020, advises that customers are responsible for returning Viasat’s modem and transceiver within 30 days after disconnection. Failure to do so will result in an unreturned equipment fee of $300.00, not including taxes. Viasat supplies customers with a UPS box, prepaid return shipping label, and illustrated instructions within a week after disconnection.

On August 20, 2020 a bill of $159.00 for an unreturned transceiver generated. No payment was processed resulting in a past due balance.

Mr. Metwally contacted Viasat inquiring about his bill on September 7, 2020. A Viasat Business representative advised Mr. Metwally we had not received his transceiver.

On September 8, 2020, Mr. Metwally’s account was sent to collections due to its past due balance. As Mr. Metwally’s name was the one on the Customer Agreement, it was his contact information that was used in order to deliver the notice of collections.

As a resolution to Mr. Metwally’s complaint, Viasat has waived his unreturned transceiver fees as of March 22, 2022. Please note it can take the collection agency a minimum of 30 days to update their records, Viasat is unable to expedite this process.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

Sincerely,

Viasat Satellite Service
Consumer Affairs Department

CC: Omar Metwally

“””

From: Omar Metwally

To: FCC

Date: May 24th, 2022

“””

Dear FCC: 

Please keep this ticket open, as ViaSat has once again failed to keep its word. I received another collection letter in the mail today, attached.

Furthermore, please note that ViaSat’s response on 4/25/2022 states that “customers are responsible for returning Viasat’s modem and transceiver within 30 days after disconnection.”  This statement is inconsistent with ViaSat employee John V’s email dated 07-30-2022, which refers to a “VoIP phone” and “routerboard” but has no mention of a transceiver. ViaSat provides contradictory and inconsistent instructions to customers, and they obviously don’t know what equipment they want returned.

ALL REQUESTED EQUIPMENT WAS ALREADY RETURNED ON TIME.

ViaSat are liars and criminals. Please hold them accountable for their predatory business practices and make them stop terrorizing innocent, hard-working people.

Attachments:

viasat_collection_letter_05-24-2022.pdf

viasat_collection_letter_03-02-2022.pdf

equipment_return_instructions.png

Respectfully,

Omar Metwally, MD

“””

Let it be known to all humans, past, present, and future, that ViaSat are liars, criminals, and terrorists.