728x90 MM

TECHNOMANIA: Dark nets and mesh networks – Dark networks for uncertain times

As part of our project 'Technomania: Opening Up Technologies' Douwe Schmidt wrote an article about alternatives for the current internet. Dark nets and mesh networks are not scary. On the contrary, they are liberating us.

The Internet was originally based round the idea of a global form of communication; one that was free from interference from commercial and governmental organisations. In the meantime, however, our data privacy is threatened by corporate concerns and the security services. This has led to new, alternative networks being developed. Douwe Schmidt spoke at the New York face-to-face with some of the alternative network’s movers and shakers.

This feature is part of ‘Technomania: Opening Up Technologies’: a project by Gonzo (circus), Grizine (Istanbul) and xm:lab (Saarbrücken). The project started in September 2013 and ended last October with an event at Studio X in Istanbul, a branch of Columbia University. During the previous year we created awareness on the topic of technomania versus technophobia by hosting a series of workshops, publishing essays and moderating talks, all kindly supported by Mitost, ECF, Anadolu Kultur, Stiftung Mercator as part of the Tandem EU-Turkey-project. Interested? Take a look at the website. This feature was first published in Dutch in Gonzo (circus) #123.

Technofobie en technomanie
Technofobie en technomanie (beeld: Wouter Medaer, wunderkind.es)

There is an internet is beyond the internet. It is a diffuse world, and hidden from most of us. It is developed for a number of purposes, based on developing technologies and a range of diverse user demands. All the members of this world strive for the same ideal: namely, independence from large companies and government spying, using a darknet or mesh network; created by – and for – the people who use it. A darknet is a network outside of the ‘normal’ Internet, and a mesh network connects users directly to each other, so they can communicate without a third party. It’s a bit like the idea of walkie-talkies, or two cans with a string between them; the opposite of a telecommunication service which sends messages through a switchboard. The phenomenon intrigues me and I was anxious to know more. Therefore, I agreed to meet up with network builders Phiffer Dan, Dan Staples and Ciaby during the hackers’ conference HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth, a conference that was hosted the previous July in New York, ed).

I’m at Schiphol, waiting for my flight to JFK. With my new passport (replete with fingerprint) I pass through customs. I fill a questionnaire, in which I confess to not having any terrorist affiliations, hand over my paper for a temporary visa, and pass through the body scan. Later, I see London under me when I look out the plane’s window and go to the bathroom. Next to me is a Filipino lady speaking unintelligible English. The voice of Tyler Durden whispers to me: “As I pass, do I give you the ass or the crotch?” I pass her with my backside showing. I suffer the next eight hours in embarrassed silence.

“I grew up with a virtually empty internet, where I had to build everything that I wanted myself. And I had to learn about all the things I wanted to build. Now the Internet is becoming less of a space that we make for ourselves, but rather a service that is offered to us.” These are the words of Dan Phiffer, a bearded New Yorker who holds down a busy job as a web designer. Along with hundreds of others, he occupied Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, the action which sparked the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. In the beginning he was a regular at the never-ending round of meetings and actions. But like many, his attendance eventually tailed off; partially driven by the fact that he couldn’t find a balance between his “Occupy” activities and his work. As a child of his time (and a nerd to boot) he devised a technical solution for an “analog problem”: a mini darknet. He called it Occupy.here. Occupy.here is a small Wi-Fi router with a USB flash drive for data storage. You get in touch with the router, which connects you to a web page with a forum. Users can message anonymously, as well as leave photos and other files behind for other users. Occupy.here is a darknet; a network on its own, and one independent of the Internet. Access is only possible when a user is physically near the network. Phiffer made this darknet for Occupy Wall Street. The darknet allowed a log of events to be stored during the days when he was not at Zuccotti Park. This meant that Phiffer, and all the other protesters who had to work during the day, could return in the evening to read the progress of the revolution. At least, that was the plan.

“I can’t say it ever really worked. The first time someone other than one of my friends left a message occurred two days after the eviction …” Worse, Phiffer was only able to get one router back; most were thrown into the nearest bin. After Occupy Wall Street, Phiffer placed his router a few times in other locations. For months one hung in the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked on the website. Most people left behind short messages like “Hi!” And “What is this?!” A few people posted statements like: “Art-selfies are the best thing that happened to museums in a long time.” Phiffer sighs: “I think it was a concept that was too ill-defined for most… too novel.”

Occupy.here is not a popularity exercise, with no likes and no retweets.

Phiffer does not look to the size of his audience as a measure of success. Indeed, he rejects this approach, which he sees as the “gamification” of society. Occupy.here was not created as a popularity exercise, and does not look to social signifiers, such as likes, or retweets. It is about the message, regardless of popularity; a message that is always separated from the writer. “We have seen that television has made us passive ‘information sponges’. The Internet could change that, but that change remains a distant promise. The existing sites do not promote critical thinking models that could break the status quo. There will be no alternative to Facebook arising from Facebook itself,” he concludes.

Occupy.here, though, is more than a fun experiment for Phiffer. It’s politically motivated. Occupy.here is a statement against the internet that is dominated by large companies that sell or give away our data to prying governments. But it is also a plea for direct communication between citizens, without a “Big Brother” government peering over your shoulder. A call for discussion, reflection, and criticism.

With a new Occupy.here pocket router (replete with battery) in my pocket, I bike from Manhattan to Brooklyn. On arrival I note that I have no new messages. But the feeling of a private, free and open channel in my pocket, something which I can potentially use to communicate with utter strangers, is a curious liberating sensation.


Illustratie: Wouter Medaer (wunderkind.es)
Illustratie: Wouter Medaer (wunderkind.es)

I arrive in Red Hook, a mixed industrial / residential district in northwest Brooklyn. Most residents live right above their store. Some families have done so for generations. I’ve come here to meet Dan Staples, a compact, fast-talking man with blond hair from Baltimore, Maryland. He moved to New York to work as a developer for Commotion, an open source tool that combines software with documentation for creating mesh networks. Like Occupy.here you can set up a home network with Commotion. But where Occupy.here creates isolated single points, you can “join the dots” using Commotion. “The network operates independently of the Internet and is infinitely expandable”, Staples explains. Each new participant adds to the capacity of the network by maintaining a percentage of the overall network traffic. Extending the network in this manner doesn’t lead to congestion but leads to the opposite; the network is more robust, and faster. Gaining a decent amount of users is important to any network, but it also raises a problem. You join a network if your friends are on it, but if you are not on it, it is unlikely that your friends will join; a Chicken and Egg situation. There is great attention, therefore, to documentation on Commotion. At the moment they are working on apps that allow mobile devices to plug into the network. The accent is on creating simple, easily explained software that allows everyone to participate. At least, that’s the plan.

The Red Hook Initiative (RHI), a social centre that supports neighbourhood projects, started to construct a small and open network that was based on Commotion software, in the autumn of 2011. RHI wanted a direct way to communicate with residents. The starting point would later be extended to a network over the whole of Red Hook. Information evenings were repeatedly set up to explain the concept to the residents, but the people of Red Hook could not see the benefits. Commotion doesn’t give you access to Facebook, Google or any other major ISP. There was no possibility to mail people outside the network. The real internet clearly had all network benefits Commotion lacked. The residents’ outlook changed dramatically however, when Red Hook was hit by storm Sandy, the super storm that struck the East Coast north of New York in the autumn of 2012.

Thousands of people lost their homes and dozens their lives. Of all the neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, Red Hook was the worst hit. Driftwood, mud and debris from the Hudson flooded streets, workplaces and homes. Electrical cabinets were submerged, and exploded with dull thuds or in some cases spectacular (if unintentional) displays of pyrotechnics. Red Hook was without electricity and clean drinking water for months. During this period, the Commotion network was the only infrastructure that still worked.

The Internet is becoming less something we create ourselves and more of a service that is offered to us.

I cautiously steer my bike around the potholes in the still damaged streets. Speakers in a garage blare out Shakira. In front of the door is the owner of the workshop where the second Commotion antenna was set up on the roof; this router is connected to a diesel generator that also pumped the water out of the basement. It was a vital link between the centre of the RHI and a third router in Coffey Park. “At first it seemed to me that having that router was waste of time, so initially I didn’t set it up. But I posted it directly after Sandy. My workshop is in a strategic location to expand the network,” says the now proud owner of the antenna. Staples looks guilty, if he recognizes that a disaster was necessary before the technology’s value was properly appreciated. Commotion helped the residents organise an inventory of damaged goods, essential supplies. And to make black jokes.
Most of the debris is gone now, but Commotion has remained and is also popular. Residents can offer their own services, such as a forum, a chat and file sharing. Two examples of services that are in constant use on the network are the Where’s the B61 Bus? and Stop-and- Frisk. The first shows you how long you have to wait for the local bus; the latter is an app that lets residents report whether they were stopped and searched by the police. Thanks to a company that supplies fibreglass, there is also a link to the real Internet, but the local element of the Red Hook network will always come first. After logging onto the network, the user lands on a page with news about the neighbourhood, and an overview of the available local services.

Staples has also established networks in Detroit, Tunisia and India, in communities without any form of internet. And Snowden’s revelations round the interception operations by the NSA, and the increasingly noticeable disadvantages of the Internet (profiling, tracking and direct marketing) are reason enough for other communities to set up a mesh network. I cycle away with the firm intention to create a mesh network for my own neighbourhood.

Tele Colonization

Illustratie: Wouter Medaer (wunderkind.es)
Illustratie: Wouter Medaer (wunderkind.es)

Ciaby also discovered the benefits of a local network following a local upheaval. This, however, was an event of a very different order to Red Hook. In the province of Oaxaca in Mexico, the combination of a total absence of both telecommunications and Internet networks, and the systematic repression of local minorities prompted local residents to set up their own network. Ciaby is the technician for Rhizomatica, a complete software system which boasts servers and masts to convert GSM networks. I spoke to him shortly after his presentation at the (HOPE) hackers’ conference in New York.

As with most rural areas of Mexico, Oaxaca provides very little network coverage for mobile phones. The major telecom providers in the country, Movistar, Telcel and IUSACELL, claim that the costs outweigh the potential use and thereby refuse to lay masts down. Maybe that’s a good thing; as a mast’s installation and maintenance costs would be prohibitive for most residents in the area. In addition, Movistar is “a natural enemy”; given it is a subsidiary of Spain’s Telefonica. The idea that every call is going through a company that is owned by the former colonial power is enough to raise the hackles of many Mexicans. But the other two network providers are unacceptable because of their close ties with the central regime in Mexico City.

In 2006, a major demonstration by teachers in Oaxaca led to several deaths. The national media ignored the nature and size of the disturbance; a fact that led to thousands of women to occupy the country’s main TV and radio stations in an attempt to spread the other side of the story. In the months following this second protest, a significant number of independent local radio stations sprang up throughout Oaxaca, all concerned with transmitting local news. After appropriating the FM band from government hands, Rhizomatica is now trying to ensure that the GSM frequencies are safe to use, and open to the local population.

The first Rhizomatica mast was laid down two years ago in Sante María Yaviche. After a well-attended meeting, the villagers unanimously decided to cover all the necessary equipment costs. Everything was officially owned by the community; meaning that the use, maintenance and management of every aspect of the network now lies with the user. The villagers decide on all matters; such as the costs of using the network, who is responsible for the administration, and connecting (or disconnecting) members. According to Ciaby: “We had one case where a community wanted us to limit the time of calls; as people would not go to see their neighbours, friends or family; preferring to spend their time on the phone. And, since it is their own network, that’s what they can do.”

Recently Rhizomatica has acquired a license and, legally speaking, is no different than one of the big “telcos”. Further, there are now five networks spread over Oaxaca; entirely in the hands of the local population. Ciaby also didn’t have to explain to the users how to build and maintain a network, such as Commotion in Red Hook. In Oaxaca, the communities took care of educating users, regulating the networks and monitoring the infrastructure themselves. The cost for the equipment, about $10,000, was applied for by the users themselves, and recovered over the course of time. The masts from Rhizomatica enable residents (whether they are based in the towns of outlying districts) to call each other for an extremely low cost. Ciaby: “Our own team earns enough to get by, but not much. We are supported by the communities we work with; we don’t receive subsidies. And we supplement our income by selling T-Shirts. Want one?” Of course I want one. Wearing a black T-shirt with an orange Rhizomatica logo emblazoned on it, I walk out of the conference with a broad grin on my face; but without any plan to create my own network. In most parts of the world, the GSM-frequencies are tightly regulated and assigned to a select group of companies who can exploit them. In percentage terms, the amount of open frequencies given over to you, me and the rest of humanity is less than 0.14 %. This is the available space we have, to set up and run our own Commotions, or Occupy.heres.

On the flight back to Amsterdam, I note that I still have the fully charged Occupy.here node in my hand luggage. Someone behind me has found the signal. I hear two boys mutter, “Occupy.here… What’s that?” “Click once on it” “No man, no idea what it is.” “It’s just Wi-Fi, we can Skype our parents.” The boy clicks and notes that he has no internet connection. Moments later, I see a new message on the website of my own darknet “Hey…!” Once on the plane, I put my backpack in the luggage rack. During the flight, seven other passengers post messages. We exchange experiences about New York (Guggenheim, Chinatown), talk about our destinations (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Scherpenzeel) and criticise the food on the plane. I seem to have freed myself from having to go through the obligation of talking to the random passenger sat next to me, maybe forever. From now on I always go on a trip with my own darknet. “Someone got any spare pretzels? Raise your hand.” “Yeah here! I’m in row 31, come and get it!”


Words: Douwe Schmidt
Picture: Wouter Medaer
Translation: Richard Foster

Dit artikel verscheen eerder in het Nederlands in Gonzo (circus) #123. Interesse in een Nederlandstalige print versie? Mail Bastian: info[at]virtumedia[dot]com.
Creative Commons-Licentie
TECHNOMANIA: Dark nets and mesh networks - Dark networks for uncertain times van Douwe Schmidt is in licentie gegeven volgens een Creative Commons Naamsvermelding-NietCommercieel 4.0 Internationaal-licentie.
Toestemming met betrekking tot rechten die niet onder deze licentie vallen zijn beschikbaar via https://dosch.it/.

Nog meer nieuws krijgen over muziek en kunst?

Schrijf je in op de Gonzo (circus)-nieuwsbrief!