Shadows, Suitcases, and Circumvention: U.S. Plans a Mesh Network Shadow Internet in Repressive Regimes

Disclosure: The Berkman Center for Internet & Society participated in a competitive bidding process for State Department funding related to online freedom of expression.

The Obama administration is leading a State Department-funded initiative to deploy a "shadow Internet" and mobile network in countries with repressive regimes. The initiative has been termed the “Internet in a suitcase” project for its plan to create an independent communication network using portable hardware components. Wireless access points could then be deployed once they are secreted into countries. The initiative is based on mesh network technologies, which allow modified cell phones and laptops to serve as miniature network towers. These networks could be used by dissidents to circumvent government shutdowns of Internet and mobile services during times of unrest. In the words of the project’s leader, Sascha Meinrath, “We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil.”

Mesh Networking at Home and Abroad

The idea of implementing mesh networks to extend the range and reliability of connectivity is not a new concept. Several developers in the US have been working on implementing mesh network services in cities such as San Francisco and Philadelphia, though these efforts have largely been unsuccessful due to both competition from major service providers such as Comcast and connectivity issues stemming from physical obstacles (mesh networks are more susceptible to signal interruptions from walls, trees, and other physical objects than traditional wired networks).

The story for mesh networks abroad, however, is perhaps more promising. Although implementation in countries with repressive regimes has been limited thus far, one organization is trying to change that. Open Mesh started as a direct reaction to Egypt’s Internet shutdown during the political unrest leading up to Hosni Mubarak’s ousting. The group has since been working on developing mesh network capabilities in Egypt designed to help circumvent repressive regime control of the Internet. Although it may be too soon to predict the future of mesh networking in Egypt, the initiative seems to at least be absent of some of the economic and political factors that have led to an otherwise mediocre showing of mesh network capabilities in US cities.

A Wireless Activist Alternative: The Good

From a technological standpoint, the multinodal nature of mesh networks provides a level of redundancy and reliability that wired networks often lack. Many mesh networks have automatic healing properties, meaning that if one node fails or is shut down, the nearby nodes will connect to the next closest available node, allowing the flow of information to continue. As a result, mesh networks are much more difficult to control than service provided by a single source or ISP, making them an attractive option for activists and online users in repressive environments.

Cyber Security and Setting Up a Shadow Suitcase Network: The Bad

Mesh networking initiatives in repressive regimes are not without flaws. The same technological qualities that make mesh networks so amenable to activist and “shadow” activities also make them worryingly susceptible to breaches of security. The multi-hop nature of mesh networks leaves open the possibility of digital eavesdropping while the nodal aspects could allow repressive regimes to target individual circumventing users and activists and shut those connections down.

On a logistics note, the recent wide coverage of the “Internet in a suitcase” initiative will almost necessarily portend repressive regimes being particularly vigilant in making sure that suitcases entering their countries contain toothpaste, t-shirts, and soap, and not the Internet. Finding a method for secreting hardware components into these countries, which are now well aware of the State Department initiative, could very well be a major obstacle to the effective implementation of any sort of “shadow Internet.”

Icy Reactions from Abroad

Considering the State Department initiative is in direct conflict with many countries’ routine filtration and censorship practices, it is not exactly surprising that the reaction from some of the more notorious offenders has been swift and unfavorable. Iranian officials have warned that the initiative could lead to a backlash against the US, and Iranian websites have claimed that the US is using the project as an effort to create unrest.

China has called the initiative "subversive" and a “weapon in a covert cyber war intended to maintain the US' global dominance.”

Looking Forward

Given the technological and logistical difficulties, it remains to be seen how impactful this initiative will be in bringing the unfettered Internet to the places that need it most. The ONI will continue to monitor and provide updates on mesh networking efforts in countries with repressive regimes.