Doug Vitale Tech Blog

Increase online privacy with RetroShare

In a previous article I described how to significantly increase your online privacy with the Tor service. RetroShare is another option for Internet users who are concerned with staying anonymous online. RetroShare is an application that lets you create private, secure network connections (based on 2048-bit RSA-encrypted SSL) with trusted individuals of your choice (a peer-to-peer network known as “Friend-2-Friend”, or F2F). Unlike some other P2P file sharing services like BitTorrent and Limewire/Frostwire which do not let you selectively share your files with certain users, RetroShare’s F2F functionality allows you to transfer files only with those users to whom you have given your explicit approval.

Once your computer establishes the decentralized F2F connection with your contacts, you can share files, send messages and chat, talk over VoIP, post and read messages in forums, etc. RetroShare not only fully encrypts all communications, it also provides reliable identification and authentication of your trusted contacts so you can be relatively sure that the other users participating in the F2F network are who they claim to be. RetroShare has the potential to be a completely independent social media venue where users’ private data and files are safe from advertisers, marketers, and other entities (i.e., Facebook, Google) looking to harvest personal information for profit, as well as entities engaging in surveillance and censorship. How safe is your online activity using RetroShare? As stated before, it uses SSL tunnels based on RSA 2048-bit encryption. To get an idea of how hard it would be to crack, this YouTube video should explain it.

Using RetroShare

Luckily, RetroShare is available for many different operating systems (Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, etc.). It is built on top of some very reputable and robust software libraries: GNU Privacy Guard/GPGME and OpenSSL.

After you download, install, and launch RetroShare you will first be prompted to create your RetroShare identity.

RetroShare create new identity

Then you will see the main graphical user interface (GUI) as shown below.

RetroShare main GUI

As you can see, there are eight buttons on top that allow you to use and configure RetroShare in various ways. The News Feed screen is confusing because although it uses the RSS logo, it does not seem to function as an RSS reader. I agree with CNET’s 2010 review of RetroShare which states: “We were a little confused by the News Feed button; we thought perhaps that RetroShare had an RSS reader, but there didn’t seem to be any way to add new feeds, and this feature wasn’t addressed at all in the brief Help file.” The News Feed seems to function as an update area where you can see RetroShare activities such as when your friends log in, when they want to send you files, when file transfers fail or complete successfully, etc.

The Friends screen shows you the friends you have added and their online status. Here you can also send chat messages. Since you need to connect to multiple friends to utilize RetroShare, adding friends is a necessary step which requires certificate exchanges. In other words, in order for you and your friends to engage in communications and file transfers, you initially need to exchange public keys which will authenticate the parties involved during your sessions. You could accomplish this via email, but this is not the most secure means of exchanging keys. After all, by default emails can be intercepted as they travel between email servers. For the “highly suspicious” among us, you can use Cryptocat or CryptBin to exchange RetroShare certificates with your friends.

RetroShare Friends

The File Sharing screen shows you the status of your downloads and uploads, and lets you view and search through your friends’ publicly shared files.

RetroShare file sharing

In the Chat Lobbies area you can view and create chat lobbies by right-clicking in the ‘Name’ column and selecting ‘Create chat lobby’.

RetroShare chat lobbies

RetroShare create chat lobby

The Messages interface functions like an email client which shows you the messages you have received from and sent to your RetroShare contacts.

RetroShare messages

In Channels you can view the channels which you have created, the channels you have subscribed to, and popular channels.

RetroShare channels

The Forums screen shows you the RetroShare message boards.

RetroShare forums

The Getting Started screen helps you take care of some basic tasks to get up and running with RetroShare.

RetroShare getting started

The sidebar menu on the left side of the GUI lets you launch the core RetroShare functions of adding friends, creating shared folders on your computer, launching the instant messaging client, and opening the RetroShare options interface (where you can launch the QuickStart Wizard).

RetroShare options

RetroShare caveats

When your file sharing is restricted to collaboration with people you know in real life, your choices of available content will be severely hampered in comparison to other more popular P2P services. In response, you will probably want to make “friends” with other individuals whom you only “know” online in an effort to enlarge the available pool of files. However, at this point the trust model employed from RetroShare starts to break down: how are you supposed to trust someone else who, as far as you are concerned, exists solely on the Internet? After all, it wouldn’t be too difficult to engage in social engineering to infiltrate a “secure” F2F network. Unless you know and trust someone in real life, there’s no way to vouch for the person on the other end of the RetroShare connection. The only way RetroShare will work as well as BitTorrent is when the circle of “friends” gets very wide indeed, and the wider this circle of trust gets, the more realistic the threat of infiltration becomes. The important point to remember is that while RetroShare’s encryption makes it virtually impossible for an ISP or another external observer to know what your are downloading or uploading, this limitation does not apply to members of your RetroShare circle of trust, and you could be at risk if you add the wrong people to it.

Related technologies


Further reference, RetroShare chat server, How to create your own hidden network (RetroShare as a ‘darknet’), RetroShare chat server, Common RetroShare connection problems, RetroShare’s anonymous routing model, RetroShare documentation, RetroShare FAQs, RetroShare forum

Recommended reading

If you found the content of this article helpful and want to expand your knowledge further, please consider buying a relevant book using the links below. Thanks!

Darkmarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops on Amazon Darkmarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops Internet Privacy, Anonymity, and Security on Amazon Guide to Internet Privacy, Anonymity

Untold History of the NSA on Amazon Untold History of the NSA We Are Anonymous on Amazon We Are Anonymous

The Shadow Factory NSA on Amazon The Shadow Factory NSA How to Disappear on Amazon How to Disappear


Written by Doug Vitale

July 29, 2013 at 2:49 PM

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