US Promoting Mesh Networks; Reporters Misleadingly Think They Somehow Stop Digital Spying
from the not-the-same-thing dept
A recent article in the NY Times talked about how the US State Department is behind a project to build up mesh networks that can be used in countries with authoritarian governments, helping citizens of those places access an internet that is often greatly limited. This isn’t actually new. In fact, three years ago we wrote about another NY Times article about the State Department funding these kinds of projects. Nor is the specific project in the latest NYT article new. A few months back, we had covered an important milestone with Commotion, the mesh networking project coming out of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI).
But the latest NYT article is especially odd, not because it repeats old news, but because it tries to build a narrative that Commotion and other such projects funded by the State Department are somehow awkward because they could be used to fight back against government surveillance, such as those of the NSA. The problem is that the issues are unrelated, and nothing in mesh networking deals with stopping surveillance. As Ed Felten notes, the Times reporters appear to be confusing things greatly:
There’s only one problem: mesh networks don’t do much to protect you from surveillance. They’re useful, but not for that purpose.
A mesh network is constructed from a bunch of nodes that connect to each other opportunistically and figure out how to forward packets of data among themselves. This is in constrast to the hub-and-spoke model common on most networks.
The big advantage of mesh networks is availability: set up nodes wherever you can, and they’ll find other nearby nodes and self-organize to route data. It’s not always the most efficient way to move data, but it is resilient and can provide working connectivity in difficult places and conditions. This alone makes mesh networks worth pursing.
But what mesh networks don’t do is protect your privacy. As soon as an adversary connects to your network, or your network links up to the Internet, you’re dealing with the same security and privacy problems you would have had with an ordinary connection.
The whole point of Commotion and other mesh networks is availability, not privacy. The target use is for places where governments are seeking to shut down internet access, not surveil on them. Yes, there is a case where if you could set up a mesh network that then routed around government surveillance points you could circumvent some level of surveillance, but the networks themselves are not designed to be surveillance proof. In fact, back in January when we wrote about Commotion, we pointed out directly that the folks behind the project themselves are pretty explicit that Commotion is not about hiding your identity or preventing monitoring of internet traffic.
Could a mesh network also be combined with stronger privacy and security protections? Yes, but that’s different than just assuming that mesh networking takes on that problem by itself. It doesn’t — and it’s misleading for the NYT to suggest otherwise.