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Vienna visionaries

June 17, 2011

An Austrian wireless mesh networking project that puts WiFi nodes across rooftops is now part of a new project that could bring free Internet access in authoritarian regimes.

Rooftop antennas create a blanket of WiFi coverage
Rooftop antennas create blanket WiFi coverageImage: by-sa-nc/teemu.s

The rooftops of Vienna may seem like an unlikely site for tech innovations.

However, FunkFeuer, an obscure Austrian wireless mesh networking project that plants WiFi antennae across some rooftops is now a key element in a large "liberation technology" program by the American government. This new group projects is designed to circumvent and thwart Internet filters, censorship and surveillance in authoritarian regimes around the world.

The Austrian project, called FunkFeuer - or "network fire" in German - is an experimental mesh network in Vienna and other cities that has been underway for five years.

While FunkFeuer is not receiving any money from the American government, its popular, free, open-source mesh networking software is being now used by a tech initiative from the New America Foundation, an American NGO, which has received a US contract to work on a new shadow Internet project.

On Sunday, The New York Times reported that the US State Department is pouring millions of dollars into various projects, one of which is a so-called "Internet-in-a-suitcase." The idea is that American agents could pass along a satellite connection, quickly and surreptitiously deploying a local WiFi network.

An antenna
These antennas share an Internet connection across a mesh networkImage: by-sa-nc/datacop

"We’re conscious of the fact that this is probably the edgiest, most kind of entrepreneurial kind of programming in the US Government and that it’s on the cutting edge of technology and one cutting edge of history," said an unnamed State Department official, who spoke to journalists in Washington, DC on Wednesday.

"I mean, this is - we’re watching the need for this kind of support play out in real time as we look across the Middle East. But again, the need is not one particular piece of technology or one silver bullet."

The American government’s aim is to help protestors in Libya, Iran and other global hotspots by building shadow wireless networks - by drawing on the FunkFeuer concept.

In other words, the project eventually should be able to, at a moment’s notice, smuggle in a satellite phone, and various other WiFi equipment - similar to what’s used in Vienna - that could be used amongst trusted activists, even if the local government shuts down nearly all regular access.

"FunkFeuer mesh antennas network with each other and pass on data packets to each other in a very unpredictable way – and eventually the smart network learns how to send the data packets to the Internet," explained Aaron Kaplan, one of FunkFeuer's leaders, in an interview with the Deutsche Welle.

In other words, what makes a mesh network different is that it’s much harder to shut down, because even if one point is switched off the network will still function. That’s unlike a more traditional, linear, point-to-point type of network that is more commonly used to pass a WiFi signal across a large distance.

Kaplan added in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle that he is helping the Open Technology Initiative, as part of the New America Foundation, to “integrate the mesh software (that FunkFeuer actively uses in its network) into smartphones.”

Network fire

Kaplan and others have been working for years setting up this experimental network in various parts of Vienna and other parts of Austria. There are lots of other kinds of mesh networks around the world, but this one is particularly large, and it’s also open-source, which means anyone can tinker with the technical specifications.

Secretary of State Clinton
Secretary of State Clinton speeks on "Internet Rights And Wrongs"Image: dapd

Most recently, in January 2011, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shut off nearly all Internet access in Egypt for five days earlier this year, prior to his abdicating power. Internet access remains heavily censored and restricted in many nations of the world, including Iran, China, Cuba and Myanmar.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Washington, D.C. earlier this year on the subject of Internet freedom, noting that the American government would award $25 million in project funding in 2011 to fight Internet repression.

"We are taking a venture capital-style approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training, and adapting as more users shift to mobile devices," Clinton said at the time. "We have our ear to the ground, talking to digital activists about where they need help, and our diversified approach means we're able to adapt the range of threats that they face."

Vulnerable activists

However, while the US has been aware of these projects for years, other technology experts remain concerned that these projects may make activists more vulnerable, as these networks are relatively easy to detect, and shut down.

Alexander Klimburg, who works at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, and advises the Austrian government on cybersecurity, noted that while this idea is not completely new, it does represent a new, more concrete, direction for American policy.

"In 2006 and 2007, [then-Sen.] Clinton and [then-Secretary of State] Condoleeza Rice both had people in the State Department who were very familiar with high-tech and who also sought to implement similar types of technology in Iraq to support counter-insurgency efforts," Klimburg told Deutsche Welle. "So in the last six or seven years, the State Department has been acutely aware of technology and democratization."

But, he's a little bit skeptical about this project - mainly because Klimburg noted that it’s relatively easy to detect, and therefore, shut down.

FunkFeuer workshop in Salzburg
Austrian developers have been working on FunkFeuer for yearsImage: by-sa-nd/chrisaut

"Belarus is a very good example it’s also a country where such a thing has been tried before," he said. "It's also proved to be very dangerous for people who have tried to implement it. So, what becomes of the rooftop antennae remains to be seen."

Kaplan acknowledges that this type of network can be shut down, but adds that higher levels of detection avoidance are possible. Authorities, just like activists, can not only see the names of the wireless access points if they turn on their laptops or iPhones, but also can use other software to find hidden networks.

Still, Kaplan isn’t phased by his new link to US geopolitics.

"Years ago, we decided to make the mesh technology open source, so in essence everybody is allowed to use it,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It is out there on the Internet in the open, and [the Open Technology Initiative] is allowed to integrate it."

Still, he knows that FunkFeuer may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, and that activists need to recognize the limits of the tools that they use at any given time.

"You have to be very clear that technology is just the tool and when you develop a tool, [a new] tool that defeats the [original] tool will be developed [soon after]," he said. "I would be careful, you know, to put so much hope into one particular tool."

Author: Kerry Skyring, Vienna / sad

Editor: Cyrus Farivar