Once, the Internet was the paradigm of decentralized, anonymous, citizen-based, secure communication. Now, mesh networks are being touted for that role.
Mesh networks are small, standalone communications exchanges that rely on phones (or other devices) talking directly to each other, with their range sometimes amplified through line-of-sight routers or other extenders. These hyper-local area networks can have a link to the outside Internet, but they don’t always need it to accomplish their central aims: local communications in spite of natural disaster or political suppression.
The Serval project in Australia, for instance, was launched after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti to provide emergency communications even when the larger cellular and Wi-Fi networks are down. Android phones running a Serval app can communicate directly with each other, a Wi-Fi-based peer-to-peer structure that uses other phones to hop between distances.
Tests by the Serval project indicate that two phones can communicate directly through a Wi-Fi mesh over 100 meters if they have a clear line of sight. A new device has been developed by the Serval project to extend that link further, and the project is currently in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign.
The Commotion Wireless project of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute is another such effort, designed to keep a local network going among protestors when regimes have cut off Net access, which has been a favored first step to quell protests in Egypt and elsewhere.
As a standalone and largely peer-to-peer network, mesh networks are potentially more secure against surveillance by governmental agencies. A spy agency could, of course, set up shop within the mesh network. To prevent that, the Commotion project has developed an encrypted program that allows communication to be routed only among trusted devices.
The technology is still developing, with reports of latency, range, stability and other technical issues hampering its utility. But, in an appropriate irony, the U.S. State Department has become a major driver and funder of mesh networks because of their usefulness for democratic movements in other countries – even as adoption of mesh networks in the U.S. is being driven in part by a desire to avoid the peeping eyes of another part of the U.S. government, the National Security Agency.