The New America Foundation's Open
Network Technology Initiative, a US State Department-funded project to build an "Internet in a suitcase" that can be dropped into repressive zones where protesters need network access and the state is trying to take it away. The project -- a very complex piece of technology -- has gotten to the point where it needs a live test, and lucky for the Open Technology engineers, Occupy DC is just down the street, and that's a great testbed.
The idea is that the system will automatically set itself up. Drop a unit near another unit and they’ll start talking to one another and trading data. Add another and all three will talk to one another. Add a thousand and you can cover a whole city. Then if one of those routers is hooked up to an internet connection, everyone on the network can connect. If that connection disappears, users can still try to update an application like Twitter or send e-mail to the larger internet and the outgoing notes will go into a holding pattern until the mesh network finds another connection to the greater net.
That’s harder to pull off in practice, even under ideal conditions — as anyone who’s tried to link even two Wi-Fi access points in their own home could attest. Now throw in the variables that the access points should work in urban and exposed environments, as well as protest zones like Tahir Square. You’ll want to protect dissidents with encryption and deniability. And you don’t want your beta-testers to be arrested or even killed because of a software bug. All together it’s the kind of challenge engineers like to call “non-trivial”.
“Finding a place to use the system is difficult,” Meinrath said. “Thank God for the Occupy movement.”
(Image: Brendan Hoffman/Wired.com)