Last summer, following the UK riots, Prime Minister David Cameron famously suggested that social networks might need to be controlled during times of unrest. “And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality,” he told parliament at the time
This attitude is diametrically opposed to the EU’s ‘no disconnect’ policy, which is aimed at keeping communications channels open – although primarily for activists in oppressive regimes. “Human Rights, including the right to communicate freely, runs through everything we do here in the EU. Online communications is no different,” blogged Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission in December.
The problem for governments is that technically there is no difference between a rioter in London and an activist in Egypt; and this leads to the apparent anomaly of governments praising open communications in other countries while trying to gain control of communications in their own (CISPA in the US, and Cameron’s plan to give GCHQ real-time access to all communications traffic data in the UK). It also leads to the apparent anomaly of the US using public funds to finance the development of a wifi peer-to-peer network that would be capable of subverting both CISPA and Cameron’s plans.
On Sunday, the Guardian reported on the US Commotion Wireless project, effectively an open source counter-surveillance P2P wifi network for dissidents run by Sascha Meinrath. “But what certainly is a surprise is the fact that the US state department is providing such people with millions of dollars,” writes the newspaper.
Commotion Wireless describes itself as “an open source ‘device-as-infrastructure’ distributed communications platform that integrates users’ existing cell phones, WiFi-enabled computers, and other WiFi-capable personal devices to create a metro-scale peer-to-peer (mesh) communications network.” The distributed nature will prevent governments disrupting the network by taking down or control of the traditional comms infrastructure while simultaneously making monitoring and tracking particularly difficult through its P2P nature. Strong encryption is also used to protect the content, and there are even plans to “integrate the good work folks at Tor are doing” TOR is ‘The Onion Router’, a form of untrackable hidden internet.
The most refreshing aspect of the whole project is that it remains true to the original concept of the internet: free, amoral communication. “Software is not inherently good or evil and can be utilized by people with a variety of intents. Activists under an oppressive regime might be considered criminals by the government that they oppose,” states the Commotion Wireless FAQ.