Freedom Box Reflections

Autonomous Internet

Autonomous Internet [or Autonomous Free Distributed Internet for the elderly] is the new meme in town, inspired by the role of Facebook and Twitter as well as the rapidly developed Internet Work-Arounds that were developed by a huge network of great-hearted citizens.

Freedom Box is an idea, not a capability, but it holds enormous potential, particularly if combined with OpenBTS and SolarOne and other bits and pieces that folks are starting to visualize.  Below are some reflections that could help Freedom Box chart a path toward ubiquitous persistence around the globe.

Hello all,

So far it appears that everyone is focused on TCP oriented connection protocols which require the freedom box to have a live Internet connection, perhaps via mesh. That would seem to me to be missing what I see as the whole point of Freedombox entirely.

I, too, have been thinking people need some small and inexpensive device which people can use to communicate and get freedom.  I was happy to hear of the foundation of this project.

The first thing evil regimes always seem to do is to turn off the Internet access and censor communications in general. I keep asking myself, “How did people communicate electronically before broadband Internet or even PPP dial-up enabled the always-on connections which allowed the web to grow?” The answer is store and forward message
passing systems: UUCP in the case of pre-Internet communications.

More than anything people need a way to ship around messages such as tweets, emails, IMs, and smallish files. They need to be able to send around simple news and activity coordination items. They don’t need flash and ajax and graphic heavy webpages. That is for marketing, not freedom-giving information exchange.

Wild stream of consciousness brainstorming follows:

Goals:

* Allowing transmission of messages world-wide in the face of active oppression

* Not requiring a dedicated Internet connection

* Encrypted

* Hard to detect

* Location-aware (for routing purposes)

* Provide very basic communications abilities. This is an improvement when people have no ability to communicate at all.

Hardware:

Dedicated freedombox devices

Mobile phones/apps

Communications:

Primarily wifi with wired and 3G Internet gateways as short-cuts via systems that support it.

How it works:

There would be a standard messaging protocol similar to UUCP or AMQP or SMTP or something (whatever best fits whatever the ultimate system is to be). Messages (be they files, SMS, email, whatever) would be fit into this protocol.

The whole idea is to get a message from a place that doesn’t have an Internet connection (presumably because an evil regime has destroyed the economy so there is no infrastructure or is actively prohibiting net connections) to a place where there is one so that the message can be delivered and vice versa.

It would implement a protocol…call it (for lack of anything better) Freedom Protocol (FP).

It would have a GPS or be able to be fed its lat/long by a passing GPS enabled device communicating to it via wi-fi (such as a mobile phone since many of them have GPS and wi-fi in them now). Accuracy isn’t important. We just want to know what general part of the world we are in. Accurate to within 10km would probably even be good enough.

Let’s say that I am a revolutionary who wants to send out a message to another local revolutionary. I can encrypt a message to his key or send in the clear if I don’t have it or am not capable. I have a mobile phone with wifi and GPS.

Like all FP capable devices, it knows:

* Where we are likely located (via onboard GPS or because someone told it where we were when it last communicated with a GPS enabled FP speaking device)

* Where I generally travel (doesn’t keep specifics on lat/long, just a probability distribution because I don’t want my phone to tattle on my exact movements, especially if it is captured).

* What the probability of my coming into contact with a wired uplink is (think of this like NTP: call it stratum 1 probability)

* What the probability of my coming into contact with another FP device and its probability of coming into contact with a wired link (stratum 2 probability etc)

* It also keeps track of the probability of communicating to a particular part of the world of each of the other FP speaking devices it talks to. This is for routing messages back to the non-connected
device.

Assumptions:

* Wifi bandwidth is plentiful but not unlimited while we have it but connections are somewhat rare.

* Connections to the wired Internet from which everything can be reached are rarer.

* Opportunities to transmit/pass along may be limited, especially at first

* Message space is limited

My device wants to hand off this message as soon as possible. They find each other via wifi broadcasts. Maybe the above probability info is what we broadcast if we can fit it all in a packet.

We want to find other devices and offload our message(s) quickly. We can keep a history of what location and stratum probability distributions we typically see. From this we can decide how desperate we are to offload a message and to whom. We should probably hand off the message to the very first device we see just to get it out there, then perhaps more judiciously later for either a fixed amount of time (TTL?) or until we get a reply.

We come into contact with another device implementing FP protocol. It could be mobile (an app running on a GPS/wifi enabled mobile phone), it could be fixed (a wall wart discretely hidden away somewhere). We send it our message. It weighs the likelyhood that it will be able to deliver the message vs available storage capacity. It may drop an old message, a message which has already been passed along a number of times or reached its (potentially long) TTL, or whatever message it calculates it is least likely to be able to deliver (which might even be ours).

You can transmit an awful lot of SMS style text messages quickly via wifi. We want to be able to get this done in mere seconds in case we are passing by quickly such as in a car.

Our message gets passed along in this way hopefully always getting closer to its recipient whose location we specified in general and perhaps specifically by encrypting to his private key.

Or perhaps we want to send a message to the free Internet-enabled world.  We cruise around and it gets sent to a fixed location device nearby a busy street. Every hour or two a mobile phone passes by on its way to the airport. That mobile phone is going to get on a plane and go somewhere in the world.  We know this because of the location
probability distribution. We know that device within hours is very likely to be in contact with a dedicated wired Internet connection. We dump every message we possibly can on him, starting with the messages it is mostly likely to be able to deliver followed by less likely messages because our connection is just temporary and will get dropped as we move out of range, possibly while we are still transmitting.

That device lands at the airport in Europe somewhere where it disburses its messages to other mobile FP speaking devices. In fact, it probably already did so on the plane before everyone turned their phones off or even in the departure area while everyone was waiting to board. But it might also do so in the arrivals hall although it may not because it is satisfied that it has already delivered to enough other devices with a high probability of being in contact with a wired connection soon.

In a nearby concesssion along the terminal on the way to the baggage carousel someone has discretely stashed a fixed FP speaking device. It spends all day receiving and transmitting messages to different parts of the world as the FP speaking mobile phones walk by on the way to their international flights. Via the probability broadcasts it knows who is
likely returning to China, to Pakistan, to Venezuela, etc. although it only knows these places at lats/longs. There is also a similar box in a neighborhood on the main thoroughfare passing almost as many messages from the taxis and buses as they go by. Not to mention all of the FP speaking devices being carried by passengers furiously exchanging messages as they move throughout the airport.

Our message eventually hits one of these devices with a wired or otherwise unmetered Internet connection where it hits a gateway which converts the message to a tweet, an email, a facebook entry, whatever.

So how do we get return messages or even ACK packets (receipt verifications) back? Are ACKs even necessary? Probably not. Certainly not at the low level. Let the receiver reply to the message in their higher level protocol if they want to ACK it. This is like UDP.

Say our contact (be it a person, a website, a twitter account, whatever) in the Free World receives our message, does whatever needs to be done with it, and wants to send us a message such as “The Good Guys are sending in the cavalry on Monday, sit tight.” Or someone could theoretically subscribe to a twitter feed via a gateway and have all tweets with a certain hash tag packaged up and sent to them.

Their return address would have to be an approximate lat/long where they expect to be able to pick up the message. They may even choose a very specific lat/long which is nearby where they expect to be able to pick up the message but of course never their exact location, just something to report as their exact location when picking up messages to ensure the message ends up on a nearby FP speaking device and is directly routed to them first when they pass by to ensure they get their message.

The message would be routed in the direction of their return address wherever possible. The message will either have some sort of To: address in the application layer (like email) or it will be encrypted specifically to them if they care about privacy. The receiving device would receive all of the messages the sender thinks it should have and then pick through them for specific messages addressed to them either by name or lat/long or whatever.

Would the message from the Free World with Internet access ever arrive?  Getting to a place with a wired net connection is a lot easier than getting from such a place to a specific area or town such that one might have a chance to pick up the message. What is the range of the typical wifi? Indoors or with various sorts of obstructions let’s say 35m. A
typical freeway has a lane width of 4m. So anyone within 8 traffic lanes (a whole freeway width, in the US) is within range. That actually creates a LOT of opportunities for message passing.  What are the chances that a device will pass another FP capable device on the freeway, find each other, and exchange messages? My wifi enabled mobile phone sees many wifi access points as I go down the road. How many people do you come within 35m of throughout the typical day? I bet it is a lot. Especially if you live in a densely populated area or travel on a freeway. The chances of coming into contact with another FP enabled device depends on how many you can get out there into the world but I don’t think you would need nearly as many as there are mobile phones out there to do some real good.

If a device has 4G of flash available and we set the average message size even at 10k we can store a LOT of messages. Do the math. We could store messages for such a long time that their chances of being delivered eventually actually get pretty high. The speed of delivery then becomes a function of how many FP enabled devices are out there.

Why would anyone who isn’t a revolutionary run this on their phone or in a fixed place device?

You need a killer app to get everyone using it. That would also serve to obscure any dangerous revolutionary traffic. You need some chaff to hide in.

Something like this could replace SMS messaging. Especially in a confined area such as a school, an office, or a small town or congested city area where the messages would potentially travel very quickly.  Teenagers love this sort of thing.  Create an app to run on their smart phone. Sell very cheaply FP enabled SMS only devices. Let them spread
all over the world.  Each device generates its own key, devices can be paired like bluetooth so you know who is who and won’t suffer man in the middle attacks where the devices transparently encrypt the messages to each other’s keys. Call it “friending”. Hide all the complicated fancy crypto stuff which would just scare people off, just claim the communications to be “secure”. Definitely avoid any certificate authority type nonsense. Use the ssh trust model. Anyone really betting their life on it would be obliged to understand the technology a little better.

So it looks like software and mobile phone apps are the best way to go here. You could build a physical device and call it a freedom box if you really wanted but I would create it with the intention of it being used by kids as secure adult-proof communications devices for spreading high school gossip. Not a boring wall-wart which nobody will buy
ensuring per unit costs remain high. But do make it small and with ability to connect to an AC power supply so it could function like a wall wart and possibly external antenna and be hidden somewhere.   It wouldn’t even need a graphical screen necessarily. Text only LCD displays very inexpensive compared to the fancy high rez touch sensitive smartphone displays currently shipping. Would kids go for pure text messaging ability and no voice, digital camera, web etc?  Who knows. But SMS sure is popular, especially in third world countries where this is likely to be needed. Most of SMS is just black and white text.

Most of the world can’t afford a fancy phone with voice anyway.

Things to consider:

Could a bad guy build a device or abuse the protocol to suck up all of our messages becoming a black hole preventing message delivery?

How can we make such broadcasts inconspicuous yet recognizeable? How often should they announce so as to conserve power? Maybe only announce while moving. Perhaps as detected by accelerometer if we aren’t fancy
enough to have a GPS. Maybe announce whenever we passively listen and hear another device. If he just came into range he was moving so he was announcing. Some such discovery protocol needs to be worked out.

It would be nice if we could somehow track replies vs who we sent the original message through. That way we could calculate the probability that any one particular node consistently fails to deliver. On the other hand, you can’t have negative reputation on the Internet. You can just fake up a new identity. Perhaps even completely unnecessary if we can run into enough honest devices to get the message through. Maybe it would be better to track who likely got us a reply faster. That is a form of positive reputation which is more doable.

Just my 2 cents. 🙂


Tracy Reed

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Great description. I like the acknowledgement of a completely different latency profile than the current internet.

  1. One thing somebody noted on the openmesh thread is the problem that harsh regimes are not going to look kindly on a device specifically intended to subvert them (e.g. the openmesh pocket router), so general availability of such is not likely where the regime has been around for a while. From this perspective using a device that people are likely to have anyway (e.g. mobile phone) is much more secure for the person carrying them.
  2. Custom software could get difficult if the regime bans the software (which seems likely if the regime has been around for a while). Non-revolutionaries are unlikely to take the risk if an alternative like SMS is permitted. Having the custom software installed wouldn’t be too hard to detect and punish. Like you say – how to have it and not be obvious is a key issue. See previous point.
  3. WWII resistance activity used drop points and couriers. Getting to remote areas or connectivity in low population densities would be best managed (especially from a time-to-delivery perspective) by having planned movement of individuals (with a plausible reason for doing so) between known fixed points along the chain. Mailboxes essentially. Couriers may carry larger capacity devices. The random chance algorithm could supplement this. Yes mailboxes are single-points of failure, but easily replaced.
  4. There’s some interesting alternative options discussed here for parts of your use-case. True it’s depending on outside help rather than having your own means, but I think the concept of outside help is one we should consider more for this sort of use case. In a biological system, if one of the elements of the system goes bad, the immune system deals with it. Our political immune system is rubbish, mainly because it’s ‘every cell for himself’. Improved systems of world government is an evolutionary path we should consider more. This solution is in a similar vein.

Colin Hawkett

What you are describing is not far off from the DTN (delay tolerant networking) suite of protocols used for deep space comms.  http://www.dtnrg.org/wiki

Scott from SolarOne

See Also:

Autonomous [Free, Distributed] Internet