Former FCC Chairman: Let's Test an Emergency Ad Hoc Network in Boston

Jonathan Zittrain writes, "Ad hoc mesh networking has been developed to enable free and censorship-resistant communications in places like Egypt and Syria. (The New America Foundation's Commotion project is an example of that kind of network.) Less explored has been this kind of networking for public safety purposes, such during attacks or natural disasters. In this article, former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and I explain why it'd be a good idea to develop these kinds of networks, and sketch out how they might work."

Former FCC Chairman: Let’s Test an Emergency Ad Hoc Network in Boston


  1.  Why confine it to “emergency”?

    I’d say that having to choose between Verizon and Comcast is ample ’emergency’ to justify the swiftest and most aggressive deployment of alternate networking techniques we can manage…

    1. It would give too much power to the people.  Too many of the authorities would oppose and need to crush it.   Let’s see why:

      It would have to be very easy to do.  After a hurricane or something nobody is going to go back to the remains of their house and try to look up network protocols.  You would have to be able to do it at any time, from any place, with no effort.  This means that people would be walking around doing it randomly.

      By it’s nature it would be (potentially) absolutely anonymous.  Anyone can pop up anywhere, identify themselves as whoever they want to be, do something and disappear forever.

      There is no good way to charge for it.  How do you bill someone who’s only there for one file? 

      It would have to be normal and legal to run an open hotspot.  The owners would need full immunity from whatever strangers run through their equipment.

      There would be no good way to tap or control it.  People could do all the usual things that they are cracking down on.  These include:

      Child porn
      Political speech
      Copyrighted materials
      Assorted criminal activities

      It will be outlawed in five different ways before This FCC guy even knows what hit him.

      1.  It wouldn’t have to be outlawed.

        It just wouldn’t work in the first place.

        The majority of people simply do not have sufficient technical knowledge to competently operate a computer securely in a somewhat secure network environment with Internet access, much less an ad hoc networking environment.

        The most popular computer & mobile device operating systems generally aren’t terribly secure out-of-the-box, and only get more insecure as their users don’t keep them up-to-date on security patches and don’t harden them against public networks following best practices for port exposure and network share configuration.

        What’s going to happen almost immediately in a larger scale ad hoc network is that people will join computers infested with malware, or simply insufficiently protected against malware, and right off the bat, there will be worms spewing malicious packets everywhere, compromising all machines that weren’t already infested.

        Then there will be the criminal element who would just be waiting for an opportunity like this to sniff for unencrypted network traffic containing login or financial information, and also probing for open network shares.

        That sort of activity would only be in addition to the activities you mention above, which the government might like to curtail, but then again, maybe they wouldn’t want to, if they also are spreading their own targeted malware and sniffing network traffic for investigative purposes. Maybe they would find the ability to exploit the false sense of security some folks might think they have on an informal and “anonymous” network to their advantage if they have a cyber warfare unit prepared for that sort of action.

        I would really only see emergency networks working more in the context of how many civilian ham operators have traditionally taken their nearly-professional radio operator skills, along with their mobile rigs, into disaster areas to help get information in and out when the lines are down. If network operators with mobile equipment were able to deploy themselves, link with others, and expand data and mobile communication capacity, while at the same time protecting the integrity of the mesh network from those trying to exploit or damage it, and users from each other, maybe such a thing would be viable.

  2. Free? Censorship-resistant? You’re right, it would be a good idea, if the powers were on our side. Need I remind you this is America?

    1. The ‘feds’ aren’t exactly a hive mind. It’d be no more implausible for this sort of project to receive support from somewhere or other under ’emergency/infrastructure resiliency’ logic than it would be for, say, the Tor project being a child of DARPA and the US Naval Research Laboratory(which it is, perhaps they took ‘surfing’ the internet a bit too literally).

      Now, that wouldn’t stop whining from other quarters the second it even looks vaguely plausible that The Terrorists or kiddie porn entered the picture; but so long as mesh networking lags conventional wireline and cell in terms of convenience and ease of use(which is likely to be for quite a while) it is unlikely to be worth the trouble of killing off. Why focus on gnawing at crypto-geek fantasy playland when every major telco in the country is handing you neat stuff to look at?

      1. Very good point. I doubt many government engineers are gleefully rubbing their hands, muttering, “Whose civil liberties shall we crush today?” But they do tend to be amoral, and if offered a paycheck for cracking TOR, for example, a hell of a lot of engineers would jump at the chance.

        The good news is, guys like Lieberman probably haven’t heard of TOR yet.

        1. I don’t doubt that the left hand would be attempting to crack what the right hand was intending to secure, possibly without even fully realizing how silly they look.

          My observation was just intended as a note that(ever since Clipper went down in flames, back in the Clinton administration, that was an attempt to cripple all devices at the endpoints; but a failed one) the feds have shown comparatively limited interest in actually trying to ban/destroy cypherpunk toys, instead focusing their attention, largely successfully, on compromising service providers, who are the man in the middle for essentially all easy-to-use everyday services that people actually bother using in any quantity. 

          This is not to say that they’ll sit back and ignore somebody who is otherwise vexing and using some fancy trick to attempt to avoid detection or encrypt their communications; but as long as the desolate whistling of tumbleweed blowing past you in the barren wasteland of other people who use such tools, you can get, quite legally, the best crypto and network obfuscation stuff publicly known. Your list of potential contacts tends to be pretty short, alas(I know that the percentage of people I exchange email with who are set up to send and receive PGP encrypted messages is probably in the single digits, and I hang out with geeks, OTR is the same story).

  3. I used to work for a company that was developing ad hoc mesh networking technology for the Navy, self-healing wireless networks that would fill in the gaps in the event of battle or other damage. The Border Patrol was also a customer, I believe to network various sensor systems (that was about the time I was leaving the company). Similar systems for public utilities for SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), monitoring of switching stations, generators, etc. If the SAFARI system is bandied about in the press, it’s a direct descendent of the systems I was involved with (not as an engineer – tech writer and illustrator).

  4. Ad hoc networks are inherently unreliable.  Mesh networks are a different thing altogether and are also unreliable unless you use radios specifically designed to do it.

    Providing useful wifi coverage to an entire metropolitan area takes a ton of gear and a robust maintenance regime.

    There’s a reason that very few cities have metro wifi installations.  They all want it.  Most have looked into it.  None can afford it.

  5. I wonder where these things will be installed. I was one of Simpson Garfinkel’s Airora customers in Boston – he explained that the early ISP-via-WiFi failed because nobody wants anything installed anywhere. If you tell building owners about installing WiFi, they get dollar-signs in their eyes, and make the cost prohibitive. I think only with people sticking these things in their windows will that work, and it might require dual or tri-band devices to make a mesh network like that work. (there are no tri-band WiFi devices)

    Also, I tried to do something similar in Pittsburgh. Nobody wants it. I am not only the creator of Pittsburgh’s Wireless Community website, but also the only member, and only person who has still had that sort of interest – since 1999. People have screamed at me that it is illegal, and that nobody wants it – Pittsburgh has proven this.

  6. I am really becoming disappointed in the readership of BoingBoing.  All these comments about why it CAN’T possibly work instead of useful discussion about how it can and should.  We get it people are ignorant and for those interested is a great in dev distro

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