Open Source Group Launches Off-Net Mesh in Beijing
Los Angeles, October 12th, 2010
The following is an interview I conducted in
Most of you are probably not familiar with Freemesh Coalition
because they have kept a very low media profile, but you may know their handiwork...
Have you followed the recent spate of ‘wifi hobbling’ (essentially rolling wifi
blackouts) undertaken by authorities in
Nobody in mainland China saw FreeMesh coming, and now the Chinese authorities appear to have been caught flatfooted in their response. My complete interview with Mr. Mendoza follows below.
Brad: So, what is Freemesh Coalition all about?
Murphy: We’re an international organization that leverages open source technologies to force non-democratic societies to open up.
Brad: Okay, but specifically, you enable political dissidents to get access to free, secure, anonymous off-net communication tools, right?
Murphy: Think bigger. Not just dissidents. Our goal is to spread these technologies so widely that pretty much anybody living in a metro area in any closed society will have access to free, private, broadband, peer to peer communication that is totally untraceable.
Brad: So that our readers understand the implications of
this, why is FreeMesh in
Murphy: Understand that in the past
several years, the Chinese authorities have become very effective at
restricting web content as well as monitoring and controlling personal digital
communications. This is not open and free communication. It is an incredible
speed-brake on social reform in
Brad: And when everybody can speak freely, those who are politically motivated have a lot of proverbial air-cover to hide behind...
Murphy: Exactly. It is almost perfectly opaque to government intrusion. It is hard to find a dissident group of 10 people when 40 million other encrypted off-net p2p information exchanges are taking place right alongside them.
Brad: What are the technical details?
Murphy: The beauty of what we’ve done is that this is all transparent for anybody to see. We knew that our governmental opponents would be able to understand exactly what we were doing, at a technical level. But given enough lead time, they just wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. So, the first major project we’ve taken up and launched in the past month is a template for free metro-area peer to peer traffic routing algorithms that can be deployed via any standard Intel MIMO-based wireless network routers. If you need to build your own router, we support that too. You can download all the hardware and software specifications from one of our mirror sites. We also provide free stand-alone and offline collaborative software tools for topology management and coverage planning for any given city.
Brad: So, if you have a team of folks, you can pretty much build a very smart broadband wireless mesh in, what, a matter of days?
Murphy: Yes. The Beijing FreeMesh went live 5 days after the initial Chinese group started downloading and got rolling. So, at this moment in certain neighborhoods in Beijing, once you load our lightweight user software to any PDA or PC client, you can get off-network peer to peer broadband to that device. Totally untraceable and anonymous. People can communicate freely. And because we enable dynamic nodes within that mesh that can become net-connected, you’ve got access to the entire web, indirectly.
Brad: I get it. So, You could have a peer within that mesh that is outside the Chinese Firewall sucking down content and feeding it p2p...
Murphy: Exactly. And if you make those open net nodes dynamic, its nearly impossible to censor.
Brad: Okay, cool. So, back on the set-up issues... I can download both hardware and software
open source specifications from FreeMesh. But, if I’m in
Murphy: Yes. But, there are people highly motivated to make sure router hardware is available to create a sustainable mesh in certain cities. Motive and materials are in ample abundance.
Brad: Okay. So, say more about that. Who? Dissident groups? The US government?
Murphy: We don’t know and we don’t care.
Brad: So, this leads me to ask: Who funds Freemesh Coalition? You have no info about that online or anywhere that I can find.
Murphy: Private individuals who support our vision and mission. We’re a small scrappy group of open source volunteers, just 25 people.
Brad: No government sponsorship? Seems like western democracies might be a little bit interested in this? I can imagine a black-op frigate parked in international waters with a big, fat,free pipe...
Murphy: [laughs] Nice idea, but no. We’re funded by private individuals who support our vision and mission.
Brad: Okay. Next
topic. What has the reaction been on the ground in
Murphy: Predictably, the Chinese government is not at all pleased. Within the first week, they realized that something was up, just through humint. But, because they cannot keep up with the deployments, they’ve started hobbling wifi in suspect areas. It was totally stupid. They were literally going door to door and removing routers from peoples’ homes and businesses and attempting to shut down 802.11 access wherever they can afford to do so. Totally ineffective. By the second week, their engineers had figured out what they were dealing with and they have eased up on the hobbling raids.
Brad: So, is there anything they can do to stop this?
Murphy: No. In addition to the absence of wifi defenses
available to them, they’re behind the ball tactically. Note that the people on
the ground who are working against the
Brad: What’s the endgame for you guys?
Murphy: Ironically, it is out of our hands now. Our
developers continue to patch code, just like any open-source project. But, the
people on the ground in
Brad: But can’t the
Murphy: They certainly will do that, yes. That’s why it is essential that the Chinese people achieve deep mesh density very quickly. They are already getting creative with how they deploy the routers. In any case, there is a mathematical point at which it is simply impossible to disrupt the FreeMesh peer to peer service.
Brad: When do you consider this an accomplished mission?
Murphy: Technologically, we’ve already achieved a key primary objective. But, we’re very
interested to see how FreeMesh evolves and supports reform in
Brad: Other countries, like where?
Murphy: Take your pick, they’re already in motion. I just won’t say where. Not everyplace else has the resources available in Beijing, so their ramp will be a bit slower.
Brad: Fair enough. Thanks for your time, Murphy. Best of luck to you and FreeMesh Coalition. If people want to give the group financial support, is there a way they can do that?
Murphy: We’re all set on that front, thanks. Just spread the word.