Wireless Mesh Networks, The NSA, And Re-building The Internet
from the exploring-all-the-avenues dept
One of the bitter lessons we learned from Snowden’s leaks is that the Internet has been compromised by the NSA (with some help from GCHQ) at just about every level, from our personal software and hardware, through ISPs to major online services. That has prompted some in the Internet engineering community to begin thinking about how to put back as much of the lost security as possible. But even if that’s feasible, it’s clearly going to take many years to make major changes to something as big and complex as the Net.
However, there’s an alternative approach to digital connectivity that has been around for a while, and that’s already being used around the world. Wireless meshes allow ad-hoc networks to be set up independently of the Internet’s main wiring by hooking together a local collection of suitable devices. Mesh networks can be thrown up and torn down quickly; devices can join and leave them dynamically; and they can recover from breaks in the wireless links by setting up alternative paths. They can either be run as local area networks, disconnected from the Internet, or hooked into it, allowing single or multiple links to be shared by the entire mesh.
One such wireless mesh comes from The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, which describes itself as follows:
The Open Technology Institute formulates policy and regulatory reforms to support open architectures and open source innovations and facilitates the development and implementation of open technologies and communications networks. OTI promotes affordable, universal, and ubiquitous communications networks through partnerships with communities, researchers, industry, and public interest groups and is committed to maximizing the potentials of innovative open technologies by studying their social and economic impacts – particularly for poor, rural, and other underserved constituencies. OTI provides in-depth, objective research, analysis, and findings for policy decision-makers and the general public.
Open Technology Institute (OTI) announced today that it has completed Beta testing and upgrades of its groundbreaking mesh networking toolkit, and is launching Commotion 1.0 in time for the new year. The launch represents the first full iteration of the technology, which makes it possible for communities to build and own their communications infrastructure using “mesh” networking. In mesh networks, users connect their devices to each other without having to route through traditional major infrastructure.
Commotion 1.0 is an open-source toolkit that provides users software and training materials to adapt mobile phones, computers, and other wireless devices to create decentralized mesh networks so they can connect and share local services. A mesh network can function locally as an Intranet, but when one user connects to the Internet, all users will have access to it as well.
Of course, neither Commotion nor other wireless meshes are proof against the NSA’s huge array of tricks and tools that we have recently found out about. Indeed, OTI provides an explicit “warning label” for its mesh:
Cannot hide your identity
Does not prevent monitoring of internet traffic
Does not provide strong security against monitoring over the mesh
Can be jammed with radio/data-interference
But it’s important to remember that Commotion and the other wireless mesh systems were designed in a more innocent time, before we knew the extent to which we were being spied upon, and how much the basic protocols of the Internet had been compromised. Now that we’ve learnt about all those things, it would be good to use that knowledge to spur the creation of the next generation of wireless mesh systems with high levels of security and privacy, so that we can add them to our own collection of tools and tricks in the fight to build a surveillance-resistant Net.