Law in the Internet Society
-- By AndrewChung - 19 Nov 2014

Mesh Networking and People Power

Social networking is ubiquitous in people power movements. Formerly unwieldy groups of people are now able to mobilize quickly in a synchronized fashion and disseminate their causes to the greater world. For example, citizens in Ferguson, Missouri are bringing attention to the murder of Mike Brown using social media to document their protests and corresponding police activity. As the average citizen gains wider access to information, they cultivate potential as agents of change. But what happens when governments hold the keys to these precious channels of information? In 2011, San Francisco’s BART system shut off the wireless routers in strategic subway stations. The move was credited with halting a protest regarding the police shooting of a passenger earlier that year. A government’s ability to restrict access to communication is a powerful weapon. Mesh networking provides citizens a powerful alternative to vulnerable channels of communication.

Double Edged Sword

Proprietary social networking platforms are inherently insecure for indignant citizens. On October 7th, Twitter launched a lawsuit against the United States government regarding government requests for data. Google, which settled its own suit earlier this year, assures users that data is only disclosed pursuant to legal process or in emergency situations, such as “kidnappings or bomb threats.” It could be argued that citizens have no reason to worry about their privacy being compromised if they are doing nothing wrong. This is beside the point though, when what constitutes a wrong or even proper legal process differs by jurisdiction. Providers in Egypt were certainly happy to obey government demands and shut off access during 2011's Arab Spring. It is difficult to see corporations as consistent allies.

Corporate Allies?

Corporations make poor allies. Even in light of good corporate citizenry, such as Kakao’s recent vow not to respond to government data requests, it is ill advised to place the revolution in the hands of an entity also balancing the pressures of a profit margin and its own government harassment. This year, protestors in Hong Kong using the application FireChat? were quickly made vulnerable to infiltration by Bluetooth’s inherent weaknesses. The BBC reports that Firechat’s founder Micha Benoliel seemed disengaged by the applications political potential, reporting, “…Benoliel says his app is primarily aimed at entertainment, though he concedes…other uses.”

Privately owned social networking platforms have revolutionized the art of protest, but with personal data potentially at the fingertips of unscrupulous governments, the risk of exposure looms large. Even when corporations do protect their users, there is no guarantee that data is actually secure. It did not take complicated legal process or sophisticated hacking to obtain the celebrity nudes that caused Apple so much embarrassment recently. The brute force attack simply tried random passwords until entry was granted. Corporations with their fiduciary duties and own slew of legal problems are far too unreliable. Mesh networking provides a possible alternative.

A Network of Our Own

Mesh networks allow users to create private networks between individual cellphones and Wi-Fi routers. Localized mesh networking may hold the key to successful civil protest in the face of government surveillance and corporate data collection. While privately developed applications like FireChat are useful, they are in the end closed source products engineered for profit. They are subject to government pressure and perhaps even worse, acquisition by a larger company. Free and open-source software can assist in circumventing some of these hurdles by enabling users to create decentralized networks on their own terms. Users determine who joins the network, shedding corporate concerns of government pressure and the need to monetize data. The United States State Department is even funding one such project by Commotion, to create a free and open-source mesh-networking program that can be used by dissidents to send encrypted messages.


That is not to say that mesh networking does not come with its own set of problems. One major issue is reliability. Mesh networking entails the connection of multiple, de-centralized devices to serve as nodes, with each node being responsible to pass on the information it receives. In the face of a government crackdown, it is more likely than not that mesh networks will consist of a heterogeneous collections of devices. If activists use their mobile phones to construct a network, it will depend largely on the location and reliability of each node. The strength of the network will erode as people wander out of range or batteries expire.

Mesh networks are not as efficient as traditional signals. One base station can broadcast to a wide area to multiple devices. On the other hand, mesh networks require each device to act as a node, limiting the range of a network to how many devices are in play and how far they can be removed before falling out of range. Also, mesh networks are isolated to the nodes that encompass them. They are unable to transmit information to the greater world without connecting to the Internet, an action that then opens up security and surveillance problems that defeat the purpose of the network in the first place.

Finally, government management of spectrum affects mesh networking. For instance, as the Federal Communications Commission auctions spectrum to large telecommunications carriers, the availability of unlicensed spectrums for mesh networks to function in is a growing concern.


Mesh networks provide an alternative to people power movements hampered by government interference that does not rely on fair weather corporate allies. The major hurdles facing mesh networks are reliability and access. Dependence on unreliable and heterogeneous node can be tackled by changing people’s perceptions of their own ability to create networks. If a small community in Athens, Greece can cooperatively create their own network via antenna, there’s no reason why citizens in politically volatile arenas cannot create a safety net using plugin computers, such as the Freedom Box, encryption, and free communication software outside of corporate interests. Undoubtedly, mesh networking does not provide the same powerful access as the Internet commonly used today, but in a pinch, could be very effective for furthering political activism.


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r3 - 04 Jan 2015 - 19:15:10 - EbenMoglen
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