Unpacking The Secret $2 Million Internet In A Suitcase

The U.S. government's newest tool for global information sharing could have big implications in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and beyond. So how exactly does this technology work?

James Bond suitcase

In a story yesterday the New York Times stirred up a huge amount of excitement about the so-called "Internet in a suitcase." The idea is that a relatively small amount of equipment could be parachuted (either literally or figuratively) into a region where one force is suppressing the ability of the general public to communicate using the Net. This is our newest tool for global information sharing.

It's very James Bond sounding, which is why it's caught people's imagination, and it's very timely with the events in Libya, Egypt, and Syria—which has become the latest nation to try to strangle communications to quell a popular uprising. But while James Bond's Q-Division gadgets were no more than special effects, the Net in a suitcase uses some very interesting tech.

The Net was actually born from some Cold War thinking in DARPA about how to protect digital assets and communications from attack—its distributed design is supposed to make the whole computer-to-computer network survivable even if one link or several is severed in some kind of attack. But as we've learned over the last several months, if you've got access to important critical points in the network, like the ISPs that channel data into a nation via just a few key pinch points (like the main international data cables) then you can shut off the network, or at least parts of it that are important to you. That's because the Net uses central "hubs" to share data out to "spokes," and, to stretch the metaphor a little, if you take out the hub then you disable the entire wheel.

The Internet in a suitcase uses an entirely different communications method—the mesh. In this model, the network is actually all about numerous interlinks between devices, avoiding over-reliance on hubs which can be weak points. Think of it like this—your smartphone has a Wi-Fi link, which can connect to a router, which is hooked to wired broadband Net in its normal usage. But if it's instead connected to a computer, which is also connected to another computer, plus a router, a smartphone, and a feature phone that has a 3G wireless connection, the entire array is spread out over more and different technologies and connection types. Squashing this type of network is much harder. It's a true peer-to-peer solution.

A company called Peep Wireless is working on a system like this that uses a legal "backdoor" in 3G grids to share a connection between the device hooked up to the cell-phone network with other computers. It relies on apps on the distributed hardware, with the app scanning the entire array of communications options each piece of hardware has available in order to share data—Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 3G, SMS and even walkie-talkie hardware. Apple has been helping Peep to accelerate the app through an approval processes so that iOS users in regions like Syria may be able to set up their own mesh grid.

The Net in a suitcase idea is extremely similar—but sending in a computer with the right software, and hardware to share wireless connections over much longer ranges than would otherwise be possible, it's completely possible to set up a Wi-Fi based alternative to national Net connections that could even tap into satellite phone networks, or sample a long-range Wi-Fi signal from over the border to a neighboring nation.

When detouring censors, the Intermesh rather than the Internet could be the people's powerful best friend.

[Image: Flickr user laverrue]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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