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[liberationtech] Building a Subversive Netroots Network

Yosem Companys companys at
Fri Aug 5 12:13:12 PDT 2011

 Building a Subversive Grassroots Network How Commotion Wireless plans to
enable digital communication in the face of an Internet shutdown


Photo: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

26 July 2011—Shutting off digital communication is a new addition to the
dictator’s tool kit. This year, between 28 January and 2 February, Hosni
Mubarak shut down Egypt’s
cellphone service, hobbling
to organize. InLibya, the Internet was suspended for 7
February, and in June, the Syrian government cut off most of the country’s
access for three days.

Fortunately, in a world full of
technology is hard to control, even for autocrats. Hackers are creating a
way for citizens to build their own communication
networks<> from
the ground up, using computers, cellphones, and wireless routers. Such
networks—called mobile ad hoc networks, or MANETs—would circumvent
centralized communication hubs, enabling users to talk and share information
in the face of a shutdown.

The Open Technology Initiative—part of the public-policy think tank New
America Foundation <>—recently received a US $2
million grant from the Department of State <> to help
coordinate its MANET development effort, called Commotion Wireless. The
organization’s goal is to get MANET technology ready for use in areas that
have oppressive regimes. The project should be completed by the end of next
year, according to Sascha Meinrath, the initiative’s director. While
Commotion has only four full-time team members, it relies on some
programming (some of which it pays for) from the open-source community. "For
us, this is about a call to action," Meinrath says.

Commotion’s ultimate vision is to build software packages for cellphones,
laptops, and wireless routers that would be able to create both Wi-Fi and
cellular networks on the fly. Once a network is established, even people who
haven’t installed the software could connect. And if any node in a Wi-Fi
network is connected to the Internet—a router with a directional antenna has
a range that is tens of kilometers and could easily cross a border—then
everyone in the network would have access.

The software packages could come in a number of physical forms, according to
Meinrath: CDs, thumb drives, SD cards. And when the network is up, MANET
software could be transferred using Bluetooth or downloaded from the network
itself. "So many vectors could be used to spread it that a regime stands no
chance of stopping them all," Meinrath says.

A MANET isn’t just a network of high-tech walkie-talkies; devices need to do
more than communicate directly with one another. Any two connected users
need to be able to share information, even if one of them is in Tahrir
Square and the other is on the outskirts of Cairo and their devices are
mutually out of range. That means every computer and cellphone node in a
MANET has to double as a router, relaying information on behalf of other
users so data can hop all the way across the network. To do that
effectively, the network has to know the best path between any two devices,
something that changes as people move around.

There are plenty of protocols already in use that tell devices how and where
to relay information. For instance, the Optimized Link State Routing (OLSR)
protocol, which Commotion plans on employing, is currently being used in a
grassroots MANET called FunkFeuer, based in Vienna. FunkFeuer is a network
of 500 devices—most of them dedicated wireless routers on rooftops—and was
created by tech-savvy citizens as a test network for OLSR. "We’ve made it
massively scalable," says Aaron Kaplan, one of the founders of FunkFeuer.
"We’ve been using it to have a community wireless network, and it’s been
running very well."

OLSR works by telling each device in the network to send out a "hello"
signal to all the other devices in range. That way, a given device is
introduced to all of its neighbors. Then each device sends out the list of
these neighbors—a kind of neighborhood map (though one that doesn’t have
exact geographic information). The protocol takes all the neighborhood maps
from all the devices and combines them into an overall network map,
refreshing about every 2 seconds.

Before OLSR can be employed to bypass a throttled Internet, the technology
needs to "move out of the geek-o-sphere and into the mainstream," Meinrath
says. The key, he adds, is to make it really easy to install and use. The
installation media that Meinrath envisions—thumb drives and the like—would
be both clandestine and user friendly. A CD-ROM, for instance, could
automatically install OLSR if it was put into a computer on booting up. And
with a thumb drive or an SD card, installation would involve a mere click of
the mouse.

In addition to making it easy to set up a MANET, Commotion needs to make
sure that the ad hoc networks are secure and anonymous so that citizens can
use them without being afraid of persecution. To do this, Commotion will be
adding a piece of software called Tor <>, which
masks the sources and destinations of network traffic, and testing it in
urban areas in the United States, such as Detroit, Washington, D.C., and
Philadelphia. "Before we put people’s lives on the line, we want to test
this out in a real-world setting," Meinrath says.

Commotion will spend the next year or so doing research and corralling the
open-source community to develop and combine a variety of software
packages—not only OLSR and Tor but also a few others, including OpenBTS,
which allows less-savvy users with cellphones to connect to a MANET without
installing OLSR. "ForGrandma
that’s the solution that works," as Meinrath puts it. After that, they’ll
spend six months field-testing what they have in the United States.

"This is something that is under rapid evolution," Meinrath says. "Check
back in three months and things will be completely different."

*This story was corrected 28 July 2011.*
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