As recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have illustrated (and Myanmar demonstrated several years prior), democratic activists around the globe need a secure and reliable platform to ensure their communications cannot be controlled or cut off by authoritarian regimes. To date, technologies meant to circumvent blocked communications have focused predominantly on developing services that run over preexisting communication infrastructures. Although these applications are important, they still require the use of a wireline or wireless network that is prone to monitoring or can be completely shut down by central authorities. Moreover, many of these technologies do not interface well with each other, limiting the ability of activists and the general public to adopt sophisticated circumvention technologies.
With support from New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative (OTI), Chambana.net, and Acorn Active Media the developers, technavists, and organizers here propose to build a new type of tool for democratic organizing: 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. Leveraging a distributed, mesh wireless infrastructure provides two key enhancements to existing circumvention technologies and supports human rights advocates and civil society organizations working around the globe. First, a distributed infrastructure eliminates the ability of governments to completely disrupt communications by shutting down the commercial or state-owned communications infrastructure. Second, device-as- infrastructure networks enhance communications security among activists by eliminating points for centralized monitoring, by enabling direct peer-to-peer communication, and by aggregating and securing individual communications streams.
For over a decade, developers here have pioneered the development of “device-as-infrastructure” broadband networks. By utilizing cell phones and best-of-breed open source projects from around the globe, OTI’s implementation strategy integrates already existing hardware (and extensions to currently available open source initiatives) to dramatically increase the security and robustness of telecommunications. Specifically, this project proposes the following five-point solution:
- Create a robust and reliable participatory communications medium that is not reliant upon centralized infrastructure for local-to-local (peer-to-peer) and local-to-Internet communications;
- Design ad hoc device-as-infrastructure technologies that can survive major outages (e.g. electricity, Internet connectivity) and are resilient during emergencies, natural disasters, or other hostile environments where conventional telecommunications networks are easily crippled;
- Secure participants’ communication to protect data integrity and anonymity through strong end-to-end encryption and data aggregation;
- Implement communications technologies that integrate low-cost, pre-existing, off-the-shelf devices (e.g. cell phones, laptops, consumer WiFi routers) and maximize use of open source software; and,
- Develop an open, modular, and highly extensible communications platform that is easily upgraded and adapted to the particular needs and goals of different local users.
We need developers, organizers, technical writers, and folks to help with outreach. More Arabic speakers are also needed. Concerns are raising to support this project as we suspect other Middle-Eastern countries may soon respond to ongoing protests in the same way. If you would like to help, please sign up on the mailing lists listed below or sign into the IRC chat below.
On the open source mesh side, folks have begun to organize around two focuses. First is to upgrade the olsr client ports (http://www.olsr.org/?q=download) starting with Windows, OS X, iPhone, and Android. This will allow folks on the ground to create a community intranet from existing user devices. Second is to move forward with an OpenWRT (http://www.openwrt.org/) based firmware called commotion. This will allow existing on the ground routers to be flashed with a open source meshing system as well as create live CDs to best make use of equipment already in possession of residents or available over the counter.
Both initial focuses of the project are being managed openly at http://tech.chambana.net/projects/commotion and http://tech.chambana.net/projects/OLSRd. You can create an account there to contribute to the development of this code. You can also pull the code anonymously via:
$ git clone git://git.chambana.net/commotion/commotion-openwrt.git
Our first hope is first create an intranet as requested from our growing contacts on the ground to facilitate the creation of local based organizing and outreach intranet applications. Concurrently, we are working to provide strategic uplinks via satellite and dial-up to get folks reconnected to the global internet. Finally, we hope to integrate the good work folks at Tor are doing (https://trac.torproject.org/projects/tor/wiki/TheOnionRouter/Torouter) into a bundle and the firmware as well. More ideas are of course welcome!
Below is a list of mailing lists for the intranet development:
General Discussion List
Announcement Only List
Folks are also communicating via IRC in #oswc on irc.freenode.net (or http://webchat.freenode.net/ for a web client).
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions are available in our Documents section.
All code for the Commotion project is under the GNU GPL Version 3, unless otherwise stated.