As pretty much the entire world is aware by now, Egypt pulled the plug on their Internet connection during their recent “troubling times”… The exact mechanics of how this particular authoritarian action was accomplished are somewhat immaterial to this post, but the upshot is that for around a week, no one connecting to the ‘net from Egypt could reach any web server outside of the country, with the opposite tactic being employed for cell phones and SMS messages (no one could reach anyone inside the country).
Of course, everyone here in the States is falling over backwards trying to tell the populace that such a thing could never transpire here, but the sad truth is that certain petty authoritarians are trying to give the President exactly that power. Oh, of course, the bill drafters are couching their language such that the proposed legislation would only be applicable to “crucial components that form our nation’s critical infrastructure”, but there is also these small details:
The revised version includes new language saying that the federal government’s designation of vital Internet or other computer systems “shall not be subject to judicial review.” Another addition expanded the definition of critical infrastructure to include “provider of information technology,” and a third authorized the submission of “classified” reports on security vulnerabilities.
Any time any branch of our government seeks to remove itself from the oversight of another branch, you, as a citizen, should be very, very concerned.
So what are we, the people, to do if our government were to somehow acquire the power to actually unplug and disrupt the existing Internet connections and infrastructure? Me, I have not a bloody clue, but reader Tommy emailed me one organization’s idea:
Freedom Box is the name we give to a personal server running a free software operating system, with free applications designed to create and preserve personal privacy.
Freedom Box software is particularly tailored to run in “plug servers,” which are compact computers that are no larger than power adapters for electronic appliances.
Located in people’s homes or offices such inexpensive servers can provide privacy in normal life, and safe communications for people seeking to preserve their freedom in oppressive regimes.
With some more information at their Kickstart page:
Imagine if your next wireless router, or settop box, or other small computing device came with extra features. It knew how to securely contact your friends and business associates, it stored your personal data, securely backing it up and generally maintaining your presence in the various networks you have come to rely on for communicating with people in society.
Such a box would not only make your participation in network communication easier in your daily life, increasing your privacy and the security of computers in your life, it would have many unique advantages during times of crisis.
Such a box could help in disasters by creating a mesh network with your neighbors to replace the centralized internet connections that go out with the lights or are cut by hostile governments. Such a box would make it harder for governments and invasive corporate interests to reach your data and casually profile you for their own uses. Such a box would also let you lend aid to friends in need by sharing your unfettered internet access with those trapped behind government firewalls that prevent them from learning about the world or speaking plainly to it.
Now, on the one hand, as an engineer, I am a huge fan of mesh networks, primarily from their resistance-to-damage point of view – in short, if one node goes down, the nodes that were connected to it will reroute their data through another node, and another node, and another node, until that data gets back to where it needs to be. Unsurprisingly, this characteristic is one of the primary reasons the folks at FreedomBox Foundation like the idea as well (in addition to having no central control location, allowing large amounts of data to be spread rapidly, etc.).
On the other hand, as I told Tommy (and he agreed), they seem really big on the “this is what we want to do”, and not so much on the “this is how we will do it”. Granted, the Foundation was only launched on 05FEB11, but there is no shortage of problems to be worked out – notably, this concept’s relative uselessness in rural, or even suburban, areas. Assuming the FreedomBox’s primary means of communication will be wireless (which seems a valid assumption, given the Foundation’s stated goals and problems inherent in relying on physical infrastructure in emergency situations), one would need to have at least one other FreedomBox device within about 800 feet, assuming ideal conditions and such. I do not know about you all, but even in our neighborhood, I would not count on having someone willing/able to run a Linux-based mesh router within 800 feet of me… Folks in urban areas, and especially those in apartment buildings or condos, would not have that shortcoming, of course, and could probably create quite the resilient subnetwork.
And, on the gripping hand, I am a fan of anything that allows you to decrease the control other people have over your life, especially when those other people could conceivably be from the government and be there to help.
For the time being, I think I will be holding on to my hard-earned cash and just observing where this concept goes; however, should the horribly-named “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Bill” ever start making motions towards becoming actual, I may reevaluate my position…