How to reclaim your digital life by setting up your own home server
“Whaddya wanna be when you grow up?”
“I wanna be like you, Superman!” answered the little boy.
“What do you mean?” asked the protector of the human race playfully.
“You can fly and you are super strong,” said the boy, beaming with energy. “... and you protect people!”
Security & Protection
“Protecting people”, mainly ourselves and our loved ones is a universal element of human culture. A mother cares for her child, the bigger brother helps his younger sister, the strong look after the weak. Most societies have enshrined the right of not being harmed in their constitution. This includes not only the obvious protection from physical damage and psychological harassment but also the protection of our privacy, which is a crucial aspect of living together in a functioning society. Despite a few opposing voices, privacy matters.
“Protecting people sounds like fun,” Superman explained, “but from what? Big, wobbly, mean aliens from outer space are pretty rare nowadays.”
The little one’s eyes glazed over with disappointment.
“Alright, alright!” The man of steel felt the need to give the boy a valuable lesson. “First of all, you need to find out who the bad guys are, which is usually much harder than you would imagine.”
The Privacy Issue
Sadly, after the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013, we have to realize that our ruling elites and governments do not protect our right for privacy anymore. Instead, every single soul on the planet is being treated like a potential terrorist and subject to general suspicion. Our use of modern technologies like smart phones and the social web enable our constant surveillance: we are observed and x-rayed in every possible way.
Every piece of information we send into the cloud arrives on a server that belongs to one of the few U.S. corporations that run the World Wide Web. During the last decade, almost all of them have joined the NSA spying program. It’s probably unfair to assume their voluntary cooperation, but since their server farms are located on U.S. soil and they must obey U.S. laws, it’s probably fair to assume that the government and the NSA are able to access all of our data whenever they want to.
“So if the good guys who are supposed to protect us don’t protect us anymore, are they the bad guys now?” The boy was confused.
Superman didn’t know what to say. While he was trying to come up with a satisfying answer, a strange-looking creature rose up from the shadows behind the two.
“That’s the way it is today, boy.” The creature answered the boy’s question with a dark, distorted voice, “You can only trust yourself!”
We have lost our privacy these days, but the right for it is still formally intact. The web that we know and love is not what it used to be anymore, it has become implausible, unworthy of our trust. All this leads to one conclusion: we have to build a new, trustworthy web—which sounds rather impossible.
“Boy, you don’t need super-strength to break the bad guys. You just need the right tools.” The man from the shadows took a glossy gadget from his yellow utility belt: “Let me show you how!”
History shows us that every great technological advance was driven, commercialized and run by a few large companies: printing, recording, computing, etc. Nowadays, the same goes for the few tech-giants that run most of the web. History also shows us that as time passes, these technologies become cheaper and available for the masses. Today, we can all write independent news blogs, record and create music in our living room, and calculate the most complex mathematical problems with our smart phones or our home computers. The same applies to the world wide web, which basically runs on servers, open source software, and IP-routing. And, most importantly, all the necessary components are easily available for little money or even completely for free.
The following few simple steps will show you how to set up your own private web server at home, which is actually much easier than it sounds, although a little Linux knowledge is helpful. In doing so, you can help building the foundation for a new, free and private World Wide Web—run by people instead of companies.
In general, a web server should be small and quiet, especially not too energy-hungry and connected to the web 24/7. My choice fell on the ProLiant G7 MicroServer N54L built by HP which you can get for 200€ or about $400—a small price for your freedom. But any similar machine will do the job. Connect it to your local network or router.
2: Operating System
Choose one of the many flavors of Linux or some other open source system as an OS. I chose Ubuntu because it’s free, easy to set up and has a huge community to ask for help, should anything go wrong.
Install it. Follow the instructions on the screen, choose the LAMP server option during installation and activate automatic updates and encryption as well. The LAMP server is the part of the software stack that runs your web apps later on, regular updates and encryption are crucial for securing your system. After a reboot your web server will be running already.
ifconfig will display the server’s IP-address within the local network. Enter the IP into the address bar of a web-browser on a different computer and you should see the Apache greetings page with the words “It works!”.
Your web server is now available in your local network.
3: Dynamic DNS
If your internet connection has a static IP you are lucky and may skip this part. Usually that’s not the case and your external router IP will change from time to time, so you need a dynamic DNS address (DDNS). From a number of free and paid providers, I chose freedns.afraid.org, which works extremely well for me:
Create an account and a domain name.
Go to http://freedns.afraid.org/dynamic/ and click on “quick cron example” at the bottom of the page. Follow the instructions in the text file. All it does is creating a cron-job with your login information.
Wait a couple of minutes and then enter your domain name into the address bar of a web-browser. You should see the same Apache greetings page, but this time your server is available from every location on the planet—only for you, of course.
At this point, you are running your very own web server!
“So what do you think, boy?” asked the bat-man. “Feels good to have control over your own life, right!?”
Confident of victory he grinned at the other man who stood in the nearby corner. Superman felt useless, somehow antiquated. His super-strength wasn’t needed anymore.
After some time, the boy finished playing with his new toy. Slowly he turned to the heroes: “Thank you very much. Now I know how to protect myself.” He left.
Suddenly the bat-man’s jaw dropped. He realized that within a second, he had become obsolete as well.
But wait, there’s more ...
I still believe that the world wide web is the foundation for a better future, but we mustn’t entrust our data and our lives to anyone else anymore. The private web is still in its infancy, but it is a path worth going down, if we want to take the web back—we only need some brave souls and make the first move.
Someday we will reach a point where we don’t need heroes for our protection anymore. In a follow-up article I will explain how to secure your server and how to turn it into a social-productivity-sharing-hosting-monster that can rival most of the cloud services that we all use on a daily basis.