Thursday, January 09, 2014

"Commotion" and Protecting Privacy Through Mesh Networks...

With last fall's revelations about widespread N.S.A. surveillance, a market has clearly emerged for enhanced-privacy software tools.  In a USA Today poll, 54% of Americans said they wanted more privacy even at the expense of some government security.  Now, the race is on to meet that demand.

While websites like Google and Facebook, and cellular companies like Verizon and AT&T, all try their damnedest to convince their users that their privacy is being protected, their respective measures only go so far - and certainly haven't protected against the type of surveillance engaged in by the N.S.A.  The real problem is with the telecommunications infrastructure.  Even if two people are exchanging a message while standing right next to each other, that message is still routed through a small handful of "chokepoints" - like a broadcast tower operated by Verizon, or a network hub owned by your ISP - and those are where the N.S.A. targeted its surveillance activities.

With a centralized backbone infrastructure being the problem, more people have come to realize that the only way to strengthen their privacy is by circumventing such corporate-controlled infrastructure in the first place.  To this end, the New America Foundation has released the Commotion Wireless Internet Project, a free and open source software toolkit to enable people to create decentralized ad-hoc mesh networks relatively quickly and easily.  These mesh networks directly connect one device to another - whether cell phones or laptops, etc. - thereby creating an intranet-like network on a local level where the devices themselves form the infrastructural backbone.  In other words, returning to the above example, if two people try to exchange a message while standing right next to each other, Commotion would send the message directly from one person's device to the other's, bypassing the traditional chokepoints.

Mesh networks are not a new technology, but with the recent shifting of public opinion on the privacy issue, virtually any software that acts as an Internet privacy, security, or circumvention tool is sure to get new (or renewed) attention.  The demand is there, and in the developer community, the race is on.