Meet The Meshnet: A New Wave of Decentralized Internet Access

Across the US, from Maryland to Seattle, work is underway to construct user-owned wireless networks that will permit secure communication without surveillance or any centralized organization. They are known as meshnets and ultimately, if their designers get their way, they will span the country.

 From the New Scientist article, Let’s Start the Net Again

In the wake of the NSA spy revelations, many people have become disillusioned or despondent regarding the seemingly unstoppable pervasiveness of the surveillance state. I am not one of those people. As James Baldwin famously stated: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

There’s a reason the highest levels of the U.S. military-industrial complex went to such extremes to keep all of this information hidden from the American public and much of Congress. They don’t want us to know that we are merely lab rats in their perverted real life Truman Show. What we don’t know about spying makes the spying all the more effective. I do not for a moment believe that they want us to know all of the details of this program so that we “self-censor.” All the evidence demonstrates that they wanted to keep this stuff deeply buried.

So now at least we all know we have a serious problem, or at least enough of us know. Now it is our duty to dismantle the surveillance state and create something better in its place. Fortunately, many very smart, dedicated people have already been working on this problem, and the information provided by Edward Snowden will merely accelerate our implementation of solutions. One exciting example of this are Meshnets. From the New Scientist:

The internet is neither neutral nor private, in case you were in any doubt. The US National Security Agency can reportedly collect nearly everything a user does on the net, while internet service providers (ISPs) move traffic according to business agreements, rather than what is best for its customers. So some people have decided to take matters into their own hands, and are building their own net from scratch.

Across the US, from Maryland to Seattle, work is underway to construct user-owned wireless networks that will permit secure communication without surveillance or any centralized organization. They are known as meshnets and ultimately, if their designers get their way, they will span the country.

Each node in the mesh, consisting of a radio transceiver and a computer, relays messages from other parts of the network. If the data can’t be passed by one route, the meshnet finds an alternative way through to its destination.

While these projects are just getting off the ground, a mesh network in Catalonia, Spain, is going from strength to strength. Guifi was started in the early 2000s by Ramon Roca, an Oracle employee who wanted broadband at his rural home. The local network now has more than 21,000 wireless nodes, spanning much of Catalonia. As well as allowing users to communicate with each other, Guifi also hosts web servers, videoconferencing services and internet radio broadcasts, all of which would work if the internet went down for the rest of the country.

In the US, people can generally already get online with relative ease, so meshnets there are less about facilitating access and more about security, privacy and net neutrality – the idea that ISPs should treat all traffic equally, and not charge more for certain types.

This is the case with Hyperboria, the virtual layer that underpins meshnet efforts in the US. Hyperboria is a virtual meshnet because it runs through the existing internet, but is purely peer-to-peer. This means people who use it exchange information with others directly over a completely encrypted connection, with nothing readable by any centralized servers.

Some form of encryption is already in use across much of the internet, but to be useful it has to be ubiquitous. Web services like Gmail, for example, let you log in using an encrypted connection. But when you send an email it leaves Google’s encrypted garden and hits the open web in clear text for anyone to read. With Hyperboria’s peer-to-peer connections, every single link in the chain of communication is fully encrypted. Intermediaries that handle traffic cannot even see what kind of traffic it is, let alone read any email. Use the purpose-built email service, and your communication becomes untraceable.

Instead of a few established players building network infrastructure, DeLisle wants anyone to be able to do it. For him, decentralised internet access in the hands of the people is just a start. The services they use must be decentralised, too. “If people continue to use Facebook, they will continue to be spied on, that’s just the reality of the world.”

As PGP creator and Silent Circle co-founder Phil Zimmermann mentioned in a recent interview, it is crucial to leverage both new technology like the above, while also pressuring legislators at the public policy level.

In Liberty,
Michael Krieger

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  1. Former Internet Provider Gagged by National Security Letter Recounts How He Was Silenced for 6 Years
    We continue our discussion of government surveillance and Internet privacy with someone who was under an FBI gag order for six years. In early 2004, Nicholas Merrill, who was running an Internet service provider in New York called Calyx, was issued a national security letter that ordered him to hand over detailed private records about some of his customers. Under the law, recipients of the letters are barred from telling anyone about their encounter with the FBI. While Merrill was not the first American to be gagged after receiving a national security letter, he was the first to challenge the FBI’s secret tactics. Merrill went to the American Civil Liberties Union, which then filed the first lawsuit challenging the national security letter statute. In the lawsuit, Merrill was simply identified as John Doe. It was only in August 2010, after reaching a settlement with the FBI, that Merrill was able to reveal his identity. “[The case] resulted in the national security letter provision of the PATRIOT Act being ruled unconstitutional twice,” Merrill says. “The problem was, though, we were never able to get to the Supreme Court to get a final, binding ruling that would affect the whole country. … The concern about cybersecurity and the concerns about privacy are really two sides of the same coin. There are a lot of really uncontroversial examples in which organizations and people need confidentiality: Medicine is one, journalism is another, human rights organizations is an obvious third. We’re trying to make the case that if the right of Americans to encrypt their data and to have private information is taken away, that it’s going to have grave, far-reaching effects on many kinds of industries, on our democracy as a whole, and our standing in the world.”

  2. I’m not sure I want to read what the New Scientist has to say. Anyone who is citing child porn and Silk Road in the same breath clearly has not understood anything

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