When will rebels, dissidents, and activists be able to safely voice dissent and coordinate their activities online in the face of a government equipped with Western technology designed to snoop on all types of electronic communications? Maybe in as little as a year, according to Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, the man leading the effort to field the so-called Internet in a Suitcase.
Internet in a Suitcase is basically a software program aimed at giving people in conflict or disaster zones the ability to establish a secure, independent wireless network over their computers and cell phones.
While the system (which, despite its name, involves neither hardware nor a suitcase) is being tested and is usable right now, Meinrath and his team of developers around the globe are holding off on releasing it to groups like the Syrian rebels until they are confident that it can resist large-scale hacking by governments.
What "we're now working on is the due diligence and doing an international deployment, not in the world's hot spots but rather in a post-conflict sort of area, maybe a Libya or an Egypt or another location where the benefits would be very great, but the risk to users in case, say, one of the authentication systems or part of the security mechanisms failed, would not be great," said Meinrath during a Nov. 2 interview with Killer Apps.
This will allow the system to be used in the wild and expose any potential weaknesses without exposing users to the wrath of a state security agency.
"Once we [feel] comfortable that the system [is] decently secure, then and only then would we be looking at deploying it to one of the world's hot spots; so a Syria or a North Korea or a China, or a Tehran kind of scenario, that kind of work, and that's probably still a year out from now, "said Meinrath. "Our focus first and foremost is, do no harm."
This means that in the not-too-distant future, rebels, dissident groups, and even disaster workers will be able to use the secure wireless network designed to resist government eavesdropping.
Internet in a Suitcase received a lot of attention earlier this year when it was listed as one of several U.S. government funded projects aimed at providing wireless communications networks for people in conflict zones or places rife with government monitoring of the Internet.
"It's a series of software packages that can run on things like laptops or cell phones, whatever devices happen to be available on the ground -- wifi routers, whatever -- and allows them to communicate directly and securely," said Meinrath. "Instead of having to go through existing infrastructure" that could be downed by a disaster or monitored by a government "you can create alternate infrastructure."
Downloading the project's software would let a rebel or activist use their cell phone or laptop to communicate directly to other users' machines via the devices' wifi chips. Since these ad hoc wifi networks feature no central control system or administrator, they are much more difficult to monitor, according to Meinrath.
"This is a completely ad hoc network, there's no dependency of any device on any other device and that eliminates a central point for command and control surveillance and monitoring," said Meinrath. "We also have authentication between each hop on the network and encryption across each hop."
Basically, data being transmitted is passed through a number of different machines on a network before it reaches its destination. Each of those machines asks the data for information saying that it is trustworthy. Each time the data moves, it is encrypted at multiple levels to protect against someone eavesdropping on the airwaves over which the data moves.
This type of encryption is important since "we assume that a malfeasant power would be able to compromise [a device on the network] or put up their own node into a network of this sort, " said Meinrath.
These mini Internets -- that, in some places where they already exist span entire metro regions -- can host a number of locally developed apps that can do everything from video and audio file sharing to tracking where vehicles and people are.
"Inside that network, things are incredibly fast, often an order of magnitude faster than most people's Internet connections, and the latency is very low, so you can do all sorts of really interesting big broadband kind of services and applications if they're housed locally" on members' computers, smart phones or even a USB stick, said Meinrath.
Even better, all of that connectivity is free since it is completely independent of any Internet or telecomm provider.
"The killer app that I talk with a lot of folks about is, if you have a system like this, there's no reason you would ever need to pay for local phone calls again" once you've downloaded the software allowing your device to join the wifi network, "because you're just pinging machine to machine over a local network," said Meinrath.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.