Building a Subversive Grassroots Network

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Thu Jul 28 02:41:08 PDT 2011

Building a Subversive Grassroots Network

How Commotion Wireless plans to enable digital communication in the face of
an Internet shutdown

By Ritchie S. King  /  July 2011

Photo: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

26 July 2011bShutting off digital communication is a new addition to the
dictatorbs tool kit. This year, between 28 January and 2 February, Hosni
Mubarak shut down Egyptbs Internet and cellphone service, hobbling
protestorsb ability to organize. In Libya, the Internet was suspended for 7
hours in February, and in June, the Syrian government cut off most of the
countrybs access for three days.

Fortunately, in a world full of hackers, 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 networksbcalled mobile ad hoc networks, or
MANETsbwould circumvent centralized communication hubs, enabling users to
talk and share information in the face of a shutdown.

The Open Technology Initiativebpart of the public-policy think tank New
America Foundationbrecently received a US $2 million grant from the
Department of State to help coordinate its MANET development effort, called
Commotion Wireless. The organizationbs 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
initiativebs 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

Commotionbs 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
havenbt installed the software could connect. And if any node in a Wi-Fi
network is connected to the Internetba router with a directional antenna has
a range that is tens of kilometers and could easily cross a borderbthen
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 isnbt 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 has 1200
nodesbboth personal devices and dedicated rooftop wireless routersband was
created by tech-savvy citizens as a test network for OLSR. "Webve made it
massively scalable," says Aaron Kaplan, one of the founders of FunkFeuer.
"Webve been using it to have a community wireless network, and itbs 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
neighborsba kind of neighborhood map (though one that doesnbt 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 envisionsbthumb drives and the likebwould 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
peoplebs 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
packagesbnot 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. "For Grandma Betty, thatbs the solution that works," as
Meinrath puts it. After that, theybll 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."

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