The random ramblings of a French programmer living in Norway...
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  How fragile is this Internet thing
Sun 30th January 2011   
Quite a lot of people these days take for granted the ability to communicate with their computers and mobile phones at any time of the day 1.

People are so used to this apparent dependability that in the odd case when somebody does not answer to a mail, invitation to a party, a greeting card, etc... that it must be that (s)he does not really want to. Well, perhaps they just never did receive the message in the first place 2.

One of the thing we've seen lately (among other) is that Internet - and the mobile networks as well - were actually quite fragile: A destroyed back-bone here, a revolution there, heavy handled filtering and censorship all over the place: No, you should definitely not consider your ability to use your communication devices today as something rock solid.

Internet was originally designed to be able to work in adverse conditions as a global nuclear war destroying a significant part of the world. The idea was to have as much redundancy as possible.

Internet traffic to and from Egypt on January 27- 28
Internet traffic to and from Egypt on January 27- 28

Trouble in store

This original intent has obviously been lost somewhere, because a government should not be able (technically) to just press a button to cut entirely its country from the rest of the world.

If you add to the mix the talks about net neutrality, the botnets attacks, the dissemination of supposedly confidential information, the data storage directives, the filtering of pornography (for my own good) or opposition sites, it's clear that there's a distinct opposition between what most internet users would like and what their enlightened leaders are pushing for.

2010 in France has seen the successful vote of the Hadopi and Loppsi laws. In the country of the human rights we now have institutional filtering of Internet, tracking of network usage, and a whole lot of other surveillance and control related material.

All over Europe everybody is busy implementing the Data Retention Directive. All over the world lists of dissidents (or potentially troublesome persons) are collected. 3 Nice world we are living in these days.

It's kind of an interesting twist that during the same week we can follow the Internet black-out of Egypt, the Obama administration proposes a similar system for the USA4.

TOR and Freenet will not help

With the increasing number of case where the freedom of speech has been threatened around the world, people have come with solution to restore the balance, generally using some form of encryption or haystack hiding principles.

Sure, hiding your controversial statements deep in packets, hoping for the government will not find them is nice. But your packets are not going anywhere if the tubes themselves are cut. So no, The Onion Routing, Freenet or Haystack are not going to help people who got their Internet access cut.

The only way you can really fight a low-level communication blackout, is to use alternate means of communication, and most of the time this will involve modifying modern equipment or using older technology.

Going LoFi

Remember how the resistance was sending messages from London to people all over Europe during the second World War? Well, they were simply using radio equipment, and some coded phrases. Anyone with a radio receiver in their house could receive the messages, making it very very hard to find the actual listeners.

The same kind of thing can still be done today, using powerful radio transmitters installed on bordering countries. You can even send data; you are not limited to voice and music. I remember that in France around 1984 there was a radio show broadcasting programs for 8 bit computers: All you had to do is to record the show on your tape deck, and load it later on your microcomputer5.

This does not solve the problem of sending data without being caught, but at least you can get information broadcast from the outside world.

If you want to do the same thing to send data from the cut-out country, your best bet is to get mobile, and have your radio equipment ready to move at the first warning: It's trivial to locate an emitting station by triangulation. Alternatively, you can decide to broadcast only for very short amounts of time, at random periods of the day. Still dangerous, but should work for a while.

Apparently, some people managed to communicate using their old Dial-up modems, you can read more on LifeHacker. Of course this will fail as well if the land-lines phone network is shut down.

Going WiFi

Now I'm entering in the realm of the guess. I've been searching around, but could not find anything about it. I can't possibly imagine that nobody tried, because the idea is so obvious that I can't see how it would not work. If you can contribute, you are welcome.

Basically the idea is that today Wifi equipment is nearly ubiquitous in large cities. It's so widespread that it's actually a pain to find a place where you are not able to detect at least one Wifi network, and in a previous house I was able to see 9 different ones.

Most of the Wifi hardware (routers or access points) is both programmable and vulnerable: The number of security issues found on the average Wifi equipment is kind of scary. So technically, writing new firmware that would change the way these small devices work should not be much of a problem, and making it easy to install (and possibly transmits from one Wifi device to another automatically) should be doable.

The concept is just that given the high density of Wifi devices, it should be possible to have them maintain some kind of network (effectively a "internet over the air") using the access points and routers as nodes. At this point all you need is one person managing to get an actual access to the outside world, and then you are back on the real internet, with an admittedly super slow and not reliable network, but at least something that work. Just add some solid encryption and you can relatively safely send and receive messages.

Would this work?

Oh, by the way, have an happy new year 2011!

Edit: Found a bunch of interesting related links:

1. They probably never experience the thrill of detecting the connection speed of a dial-up connection based on the frequency and funny noises - this double springy sound that tells you that your 56k modem managed to negotiate the x2 protocol ;)
2. Like one of my sister sending SMS to my father who for some reason can't receive SMS on his telephone; and my other sister asking me why I'm not sending her mails - then realizing she never actually informed me she had moved to another ISP.
3. I'm pretty sure that if I started to blog about the American or French Government in violent enough terms (while staying polite of course) soon enough I would be intercepted at some airport for some polite discussion with the immigration offices. Oh and my computer would of course be scanned and confiscated. Actually since my website is hosted on a .org domain by Yahoo! it would most probably be put offline...
4. But of course it's to protect the country from cyber threats.
5. Well, assuming the transmission was correct, that the tape was good, that your mother did not decide it was a good time to start the washing machine, and of course that the computer gods were happy that day
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