Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cuba likely target for mesh network

The Open Technology Institute has created an open-source tool that would allow democracy activists in Cuba and other nations to build independent wireless networks.
The institute, or OTI, announced on March 13 that it was releasing its first developer's version of the tool, called Commotion, which can be used to create a mesh network.
Mesh networks, originally designed for military applications, allow activists to operate independent of central authorities' communication infrastructure.
The OTI is part of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Agency for International Development in September 2012 gave the foundation $4.3 million for a three-year Cuba project. The foundation has not disclosed details of the project, which OTI is managing.
OTI said on its website that it has been working to develop an open-source mesh network tool. It stated:
As recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have illustrated (and Myanmar demonstrated several years prior), democratic activists around the globe need a secure and reliable platform to ensure their communications cannot be controlled or cut off by authoritarian regimes.

To date, technologies meant to circumvent blocked communications have focused predominantly on developing services that run over preexisting communication infrastructures. Although these applications are important, they still require the use of a wireline or wireless network that is prone to monitoring or can be completely shut down by central authorities.
Moreover, many of these technologies do not interface well with each other, limiting the ability of activists and the general public to adopt sophisticated circumvention technologies.
The institute said Commotion would allow activists to use their own mobile phones and other devices as their communication infrastructure. It stated:
We’re building a new type of tool for anyone to use: one that uses a distributed mesh infrastructure to provide a communications platform for communities and human rights advocates. A distributed infrastructure eliminates the ability for powerful groups, such as governments, to completely disrupt communications by shutting down the commercial or state-owned communications infrastructure.
Rafe Needleman
Rafe Needleman, who writes about technology, explained how mesh networks work in a July 2012 article in CNET.
Mesh networks let devices share their connections with other users. If one user has a clean network connection and another nearby user does not, the second user can piggyback on the first's, automatically. If there's a collection of many people, their machines can all cooperate to make connections -- to each other and to the global Internet.
In advanced mesh networks, connections and data can hop among devices, creating ad hoc bucket-brigade paths for communication.
The concept of mesh networking is not new. Many military systems rely on mesh networking, since forces in the field cannot rely on communications infrastructures. Utilities also use mesh networks for collecting data from equipment, like smart meters.
The OTI said Commotion was designed to:
  • Prevent hostile governments from surveilling, disrupting, or shutting down communications.
  • Enhance security among democratic activists by enabling direct peer-to-peer communications.
  • Implement open source and open tech solutions that facilitate continued adaptation, enhancement, and implementation of these technologies by democratic activists and programmers around the globe.
The OTI said the tool allowed:
  • Encrypted and anonymous voice and data communications.
  • Local communication "even if Internet connectivity is disrupted or severed."
  • Anonymous calls and text messages.
In addition, any device in the network can share Internet access with every other device no matter whether they are using satellite, dial-up, wireless phone or cable Internet connection.
But creators of the tool warn that Commotion:
  • 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.
OTI says that it is developing Commotion with the following partners:
  • THE GUARDIAN PROJECT: While smartphones have been heralded as the coming of the next generation of communication and collaboration, they are a step backwards when it comes to personal security, anonymity and privacy. The Guardian Project aims to create easy-to-use mobile apps, open-source firmwares, and customized, commercial mobile phones that can be used and deployed around the world by any person looking to protect their communications from unjust intrusion. Guardian offers several Android Apps related to security and privacy.
  • THE SERVAL PROJECT: Serval is revolutionary, free, open-source software under development for mobile telephones, letting them communicate even in the absence of phone towers and other supporting infrastructure. The Serval Project consists of two systems. The first is a temporary, self-organizing, self-powered mobile network for disaster areas, formed with small phone towers dropped in by air. The second is a permanent system for remote areas that requires no infrastructure and creates a mesh-based phone network between WiFi-enabled mobile phones, and eventually specially designed mobile phones that can operate on other unlicensed frequencies, called Batphone. The two systems can also be combined.
  • OPENBTS: OpenBTS is a Unix application that uses a software radio to present a GSM air interface to standard 2G GSM handsets and uses a SIP softswitch or PBX to connect calls. (You might even say that OpenBTS is a simplified form of IMS that works with 2G feature-phone handsets.) The combination of the global-standard GSM air interface with low-cost VoIP backhaul forms the basis of a new type of cellular network that can be deployed and operated at substantially lower cost than existing technologies in many applications, including rural cellular deployments and private cellular networks in remote areas.
  • THE WORK DEPARTMENT: The Work Department is a technology and media firm that works with leading nonprofit organizations, advocacy campaigns, and businesses that make a social impact. It has engaged in a multi-year effort to research mesh networking projects around the world, help shape Commotion’s identity, and position the project for success. The Work Department is coordinating Commotion test projects in Detroit, conducting research on mesh networking, developing human interface guidelines, and providing website development and documentation for Commotion.
From La Singularidad

Note: This article was shared with the Center for Democracy in the Americas as part of a six-month collaborative project with non-profit group. See more about our collaboration here.

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