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The State Department and USAID have been granting funds for building overseas mesh networks, physically separate networks that can only be accessed locally. These programs progress even as allegations about the scope of NSA spying overseas grows. We learn about the potential uses for these off-the-grid systems both overseas and in the U.S.
- James Glanz reporter, The New York Times
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the changing art scene. How artists are faring in Washington and what needs to be done to keep them here. But first, the Internet has been a boon for activists. But the flip side of the coin is that despite the seeming anonymity we enjoy online, many have long suspected what NSA spying revelations continue to prove, there is ultimately nowhere to hide.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut some communities are experimenting with ways to share information without having to connect to the Internet. Here to explain this is James Glanz. He is a reporter with The New York Times. He joins us from studios at The Times in New York. James Glanz, thank you for joining us.
MR. JAMES GLANZGlad to be here.
NNAMDIJames, going off the grid is not a new concept, but it's one that has never really been attainable for online activists for practical reasons. But that may no longer be the case. Can you tell us what a mesh network is, both in terms of how it works and what it can do?
GLANZWell, it's a real gee-whiz kind of technology. But it's gotten to the point where people can, in some circumstances, sort of throw it out locally and operate independently of the Internet. You know, in some cases, the way it works is that you put routers with special software, sort of scatter them around rooftops. And as long as those routers can see each other, kind of actual line-of-sight, they create a network automatically. You can do a little configuration, but there's not a whole lot to it, thanks to some folks at the New American Foundation.
GLANZAnd there you go. You have a local network and you can put in cryptographic features and passwords and things like that if you like. But the big feature about this mesh is that it's physically separate from the Internet if you choose to operate it that way. Not everybody does. There are other reasons to put these networks out there. But if you want to operate separately from the Internet, you can do that.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here. Are you part of a mesh network? Tell us how you use it and why. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. James Glanz, this idea is one that has practical applications both here, in the U.S., and abroad. What -- or where have we seen this concept tested and to what various ends?
GLANZWell, it was an amazing journey. During this piece, I worked with colleague Carlotta Gall in North Africa. And she went to a town in Tunisia where they've set up one of these mesh networks. And the local community there uses it basically for community organizing for, you know, staying in touch and finding a way for people to have a digital network they can communicate on without using the Internet. Now, strangely enough, it has different applications in the U.S.
GLANZI went to Detroit -- inner-city Detroit and Red Hook, Brooklyn, which was a place that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. And in Red Hook, the mesh was the only network, really, that stayed up when the hurricane came through. You know, standard Internet, cell phone networks crashed. This little mesh network stayed up and it allowed the community to communicate. And in their case, they used it as a way to communicate actually outward to the Internet, using a satellite connection. That's how they wanted to use the mesh network there.
GLANZIn the inner-city of Detroit, it's used in all sorts of ways. But really, really fascinating to get up on rooftops and crawl through windows and see these routers out there as a means, really, of getting people connected where they have no other option, and for local organizers to sort of set up projects.
NNAMDIWhat were they doing in Detroit, setting up what kinds of projects? Was this something -- the kind of thing that's used by community activists?
GLANZExactly. Yeah. It's used in various ways. As I said, you can operate this thing independently of the Internet.
GLANZOr you can use it as a kind of a wireless access point to connect to the Internet, if you want to use it that way. So in Detroit, for example, there's a fellow named Haru House (sp?) who was setting up a network in his neighborhood, a devastated neighborhood there. And the people in that neighborhood just cannot afford their own wireless or they may not have access to it. The infrastructure may not be there. And what Haru did was, he set up a network of these routers.
GLANZAnd instead of operating it separately, he allowed that mesh network to be a wireless access point that then he connected to an Internet service provider, allowing people around there to look for jobs, communicate with each other, do all the things that we take for granted on the Internet, but did not exist in that neighborhood before Haru set it up.
NNAMDIWe're talking with James Glanz. He's a reporter for The New York Times who has been writing about mesh networks. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. James Glanz, here's where the confusion comes in. Grants for developing these networks have been funded by the State Department and USAID. And that's become both ironic and likely uncomfortable, in light of revelations about NSA spying programs. To what extent is this a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing?
NNAMDIOr are the missions so different that this irony doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, because when you look at their international usage, one gets the impression that this is intended as a boon for pro-Democracy activists in some parts of the world, like Cuba, where they can avoid using the Internet and therefore having their own governments intercept or spy on them?
GLANZWell, Kojo, you're right. This complicates the story. So let me do my best to try to clarify this. These grants were first written by the State Department under Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. And that was before the NSA stories broke -- all the revelations that we now have about how the other hand of the government was operating. These were created -- these grants were created really with an eye toward letting dissidents abroad find new ways to communicate securely where there are repressive governments trying to do surveillance on their communications.
GLANZNow, since then we've learned more about what the NSA is doing. And there is an irony there, the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. But I think it's just two separate tracks. And strangely enough, now that we're aware of both of them, which we weren't back when these grants first were written, you see people reaching to the State Department funded program in the United States, to talk about ways to foil NSA spying. So, sorry it's not as simple as we'd like in a lot of these stories that we write about in the paper.
GLANZIt's better to have one storyline. But this is the way it happened, the left hand not knowing what the right is doing. Back in the old days when we first wrote about this, we called it the Internet in a suitcase because the idea was that you would take across, you know, a suitcase full of material and you'd spread it out. And the spies would set it up -- dissident spies. And they'd have a new way to talk to each other. So a pretty fun story, but a little complicated.
NNAMDIYes, indeed. You quote Ben Scott, a former State Department official who supported the financing. It says that it's, in my mind, one of the great unreported ironies of the first Obama Administration. But here...
GLANZYeah. And don't want to interrupt, but one thing I should credit.
GLANZBen was the guy who came up with the term, Internet in a suitcase, it can now be revealed. He sat across the café table in Washington D.C. and he said, "It's an Internet in a suitcase." And I said, "Ben, I'm getting that in the story." And that's how it started.
NNAMDIHere is John in Wheaton, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYes. Hello. So glad to talk to you. HacDC, which is a makerspace down on 16th street in D.C., has the Byzantium Project, which is a mesh network. You get a DVD with the latest version on it and you load it on your computer. And then you become a node.
NNAMDIIs that restricted to a certain area of the city, John? Or can you be a part of it anywhere in the city?
JOHNNo, you can be a part of it anywhere. It was invented because of the problem that people were having, particularly I believe in Egypt at the time, when they restricted a lot of Internet. But it is -- the fact that it runs computer-to-computer, it's wherever you can set up your access point from your laptop.
NNAMDIOkay. And it's been running in D.C. for how long?
JOHNI don't know. I haven't been down for a while, so oh, it's over a year old. And I'm thinking, with the latest upgrade, they have the net Byzantium Sprint. If you go to HacDC.org, and...
JOHNYes. It is a major space on 16th Street, down at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, physically, if somebody needs to get there. And go online and sign on. They have a broadcast network up called Blabber. And if you log your email in to that, you can get to talk to whoever happens to be online at the time.
NNAMDIJames Glanz, you cover Brooklyn, you cover Detroit. We understand that there was one in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood here in Washington D.C. What sense do you have that there are mesh networks all over the country?
GLANZWell, the caller's exactly right. I think they're spreading. It's just hard to keep track of because it's very local in nature. And I do think the Byzantium folks contributed a bit to the Red Hook development at one point. I didn't get that in the piece, but they're part of this wider development of the technology and sort of making it easier for people to use.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, John. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think the U.S. funding secure connections overseas is an ironic exercise, given NSA revelations? 800-433-8850. You've been covering fallout from the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden and U.S. data collection, more broadly. Where does this activity fit on the spectrum of what we've learned since those initial documents came to light?
GLANZWell, the documents have changed our view of how the online world works. And in particular, they've shined a lot of light on, you know, whether the Internet is something that was kind of in a way designed to be surveilled. You know it's not just the government but as the president pointed out in one speech, it's also ad companies and other people who use your private information, who are happy to be pulling this stuff in and doing it easily. There are a lot of ways to get around that. People try encryption, and VPNs and tunnels and all that.
GLANZThis is a different train of thought. And the idea is, you go to a physically separate network. And that, I think, is a fresh idea. And that's why I think New America Foundation is kind of leading the way in thinking through these new issues that have come up in light of these documents.
NNAMDIYou reported on networks in Tunisia and one targeted for Cuba. Do you have a sense as to what extent the governments of those nations either are opposed to or willing to tolerate these projects coming to their soil under the auspices of the U.S. government?
GLANZWell, in Tunisia, you know, that's a place where the Arab Spring really happened the way a lot of people sort of envisioned it. The government in place now is much more tolerant of these kinds of programs and they're aware of what's happening in the seaside town, Skhira, where as I said, my Carlotta Gall visited and saw this network taking place and actually working. In Cuba, you know, you never know in Cuba, right? They might get onboard, but they've jailed someone who was receiving funding from USAID there for a program distantly related to this.
GLANZAnd of course, as we reported the piece, USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, has also given funding to create mesh networks in Cuba. Although that project has not yet gone to Cuba.
NNAMDIThe thought behind these mesh networks is that they might be more secure for activists and for others than the open Internet. But I've seen concerns raised about the security of these setups. Is it, in a way, a matter of trading risks and taking calculated risks?
GLANZAlways. Yeah. Yeah, and as we say in the piece, I think Sascha Meinrath, who's an innovator in this field at New America, says in the piece, this is not a silver bullet. These things are designed with cryptographic features if you choose to use them, passwords, and this physically separate nature from the ground up to be resistant to snooping. But there's no absolute guarantee that you can't be snooped on. It can make it harder for that to happen.
GLANZYou know, I can go in a closed room and have a conversation with somebody with three walls of insulation and think I'm alone. But again, I may not be. Same with any kind of network.
NNAMDIBut even if you can't be snooped on in this network, or it would be difficult for it to be snooped on, the arrangement that you describe on rooftops, on the side of apartment buildings, anyway they can see one another means that they're also visible to people who are looking for them, aren't they?
GLANZSpies do all kinds of interesting sometimes scary things. So they're very small, I will say that.
GLANZIt's surprisingly hard to pick them out if you don't know they're there. There's one on the side of a church steeple next to Coffee Park in Brooklyn, which is where everybody gathered after the hurricane for aid and relief and so forth. And if you didn't know that little white router was up there on the side of the Visitation Church, you know, you'd be hard pressed to find it.
GLANZI climbed up there finally and looked at it and it's a few inches long, a couple inches wide. And a spy could probably find it if he was a real determined spy, no question about that. And as I say, there's no silver bullet there. This is just one way you can go to increase your chances of not being snooped on.
NNAMDIEither a spy or a reporter looking for it. James Glanz is a reporter...
GLANZOh, you can't avoid the reporters.
NNAMDIJames Glanz is a reporter for the New York Times. James, thank you so much for joining us.
GLANZAppreciate it. Nice to be here.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the changing scene, how artists are faring in Washington, D.C. and what needs to be done to keep them here. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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