Law in the Internet Society
Mesh Networking and Civil Protest -- By AndrewChung - 09 Oct 2014

Power to the People

Social networking is ubiquitous in people power movements. The ability to send information instantly to anyone levels the playing field for citizen protestors. Formerly large, unorganized, and unwieldy groups of people are now able to mobilize quickly, at precise times and locations, with focused and pre-determined goals. Most importantly, social networks allow people power movements to gain the attention of the greater world. In particular, activists in the town of Ferguson, Missouri have successfully brought attention to the murder of Mike Brown by a police officer. Activists are using applications such as Twitter to broadcast images and video of their protests and document police activity. This constant stream from the ground creates an account of events that complements, and at time contradicts, traditional news reports of the protests. As the average citizen gains wider access to information, they cultivate greater potential as agents of change and justice. But what happens when governments hold the keys to these precious channels of information? In 2011, San Francisco’s BART system shut off the wireless routers in strategic subway stations. The move was credited with halting citizens from organizing a protest regarding the police shooting of a passenger earlier that year. A government’s ability to restrict access to communication is a powerful weapon.

It took 209 words, 21% of the allocated space, just to come to the point. You need to make your introduction crisper. The reader needs to know what your subject is and what you have to say in half this space.

Corporate Allies

With this in mind, many participating in the 2014 protests in Hong Kong have preemptively turned to the mesh networking application FireChat. The application allows users to circumvent cable and wireless networks vulnerable to government control, and combine multiple phones into a network via Bluetooth. While the system is not completely secure,

No, it is not secure at all. Endpoints are not authenticated, messages are not encrypted in flight, surveillance of the social graph is easy, spoofing is widespread and simple. It would be correct to say that this was improvised technology that is unsuitable for its intended purpose but is better than nothing until the adversary gains control of it, at which point it is far worse than nothing.

If you're going to write about a technical phenomenon, you need to understand it fully, even though you will not have room to explain it. What you write must not be inconsistent with, let alone contradict, what a technically well-informed reader knows to be the facts. Otherwise, you will forfeit credibility with that segment of the readership immediately, and irremediably.

it does provide a working alternative if the government does decide to shut down communication lines.

Are you sure? How do you know? FireChat was being used to solve a different problem: congestion. Here mesh networking was being used to overcome the inherent difficulties in proprietary routing. What's being proved is my point that anarchist distribution is more efficient than proprietary distribution.

To prove the concept in practice against the supposed failure model, active intervention by the state seeking shutdown, you can't refer to what happened in Hong Kong, where that was most certainly not tried. Your engineering challenge, as the State, is to defeat a large number of nodes interconnected, with high geographic density, using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (you didn't mention Wi-Fi, but you should have done). Bluetooth jamming is trivial, because Bluetooth devices use very low transmission power over very short distances. For State parties to jam Bluetooth over the areas involved would require only dozens of vehicles equipped with jamming transmitters. Suppressing wi-fi is actually a more difficult challenge, but it's eminently possible. On the Chinese mainland, where military equipment is always available immediately, the task is a simple one. One US Navy vessel with standard electronic warfare gear sitting in the harbor of a city could probably wipe out all mesh networking over tens of square miles.

Perhaps then, the efforts of private for profit entities could be a strong ally for estranged political movements. A recent McKinsey study estimates that nearly 4.4 billion people worldwide are currently without Internet access. If unbridled access to information via the Internet facilitates justice, then certainly private companies are leading the charge. Both Google and Facebook are reported to be exploring creative ways to broaden access around the world, exploring weather balloons and solar powered drones as access points. The profit motive for these pet projects is clear. For every new individual connected, Internet companies gain a new potential user. But does this matter? Is it impossible for business to help advance justice while still making a buck?

Sure, but what has that to do with absolutely anything? A moment ago, proprietary networks were what we could count on the State to be able to close. (Correctly.) Now the commercial interests of data-miners—who want to encourage the building of proprietary networks because they are pneumatic vacuum tubes that will help them to siphon up peoples' data in more parts of the world—are relevant? Why?

Corporate Allies?

On October 7th, Twitter launched a lawsuit against the United States government. At the crux of the suit is Twitter’s claim that it should be able to inform its users about government requests for data. Google, which settled its own suit earlier this year in January, provides statistics to its users regarding the number, origin, and compliance numbers of government requests. For the United States alone, the company reports that there were a total of 12,539 requests regarding 21,576 accounts between January and June of 2014. Google complied with 84 percent of these requests. Google assures its users that data is only disclosed pursuant to legal process or in emergency situations, such as “kidnappings or bomb threats”. The number of accounts in question is small considering Google’s large user base, but it is evident that Google complies with most government requests. It could be argued that citizens have no reason to worry about their privacy being compromised if they are doing nothing wrong, but this is beside the point. As the recent uproar over Facebook’s enforcement of its real name policy on drag queens illustrates, the user experienced provided is in exchange for individualized data to be sold to the highest bidder. Even if Google and all of its corporate competitors stuck to the motto “Don’t be evil”, the fact of the matter is that the effort to monetize user experiences results in the collection of immense amounts of data.

So what? This is now another subject: the use by law enforcement of access to data-miners' data. What has this to do with the supposed subject, which is mesh networking, in which the presence of data-mining intermediaries is minimized, unless someone thinks the State can decapitate networks but not listen to or corrupt them? Would one replace the proprietary network in order to use the proprietary communications platform? To what foreseeable mode of use is this analysis therefore relevant?

Double Edged Sword

What is a potential dissident supposed to do? Privately owned social networking platforms have revolutionized the art of protest, but with personal data potentially at the fingertips of unscrupulous governments, the risk of exposure looms large. Furthermore, even when corporations do protect their users, there is no guarantee that data is actually secure. It did not take complicated legal process or sophisticated hacking to obtain the celebrity nudes that caused Apple so much embarrassment recently. The brute force attack simply tried random passwords until entry was granted. Mesh networking provides a possible alternative.

A Network of Our Own

Mesh networks allow users to create private networks between individual cellphones and Wi-Fi routers. Localized mesh networking may hold the key to successful civil protest in the face of government surveillance and corporate data collection. While privately developed applications like FireChat are useful, they are in the end closed source products engineered for profit. They are subject to government pressure and perhaps even worse, acquisition by a larger company. Free and open-source software can assist in circumventing some of these hurdles by enabling users to create decentralized networks on their own terms. Users determine who joins the network, shedding corporate concerns of government pressure and the need to monetize data. The United States State Department has even bankrolled one such project by Commotion, to create a free and open-source mesh-networking program that can be used by dissidents to send encrypted messages. Ironically, it is not the government that stands in the way of these developments, but the prohibitive nature of two of the world’s popular smartphone makers: Apple and Google. Both iPhone and Android operating systems make it exceedingly difficult to modify phones for mesh networking. On top of this, Google appears to be altogether moving away from open source Android operating systems. With competition for profits driving technology’s most influential corporations to withdraw deeper and deeper into secrecy, free and open-source software maintained by an army of volunteers maybe be the only alternative left for the tech savvy activist.

This, which is apparently the point you need to make at the top, also requires further analysis. Closer inspection of the history of free software mesh networking should convince you that the basic engineering problems are still unsolved. Blaming the outcome on Android, iOS, or handset manufacturers would only make sense if we had perfectly effective mesh working on devices that are not locked-down in the interests of telecomm network operators. If all our hardware that isn't controlled by an intermediary were working in robust mesh, your claim that the mobile OSs are at fault could be correct. But under existing conditions it obviously isn't.

Nor can you argue that the provision of secure and survivable socially widespread communications for anti-government or even dissenting activity depends solely on the transport layer. Clearly, as you indicate, the use of commercially-implemented data-mining platforms as communications intermediaries introduces intricate if not insoluble problems at layer seven, far above the mere matter of which pipes packets move through. So you need something way higher than the link layer also: applications and architectures that help people use unsafe mobile devices safely, and encourage the replacement of unsafe mobile devices by safe ones. FreedomBox and the De-Chromed Tails-running Chromebook, perhaps?

The next draft needs to benefit from a thorough rethinking at the outline level. What is the real subject? How can it be introduced fully and swiftly? What points are then needed to develop the idea presented in the introduction. in what order, at balanced length? How can the reader be given some thinking of her own to do at the end, via a conclusion which takes the introduced idea further, indicating the direction but not taking the journey to which the reader is summoned on her own?

Then follows the improvement of the implementation, which involves nailing down the technologies you are discussing, understanding them thoroughly, so everything you don't say is known to you and everything you do say is consistent with what your most informed reader also knows.


Webs Webs

r2 - 26 Oct 2014 - 13:33:33 - EbenMoglen
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