Fast Company

How VPNs Keep Occupy Wall Street Networks Up And Protesting

An organization called the Free Network Foundation has equipped Occupy Wall Street and two other Occupy protests with secure communications towers. Now the organization is leading a fundraising drive so others can enjoy secure networks.

With the Occupy Wall Street movement continuing into a third month of camping out in Zuccotti Park, significant logistical challenges are hampering protesters. Apart from the difficulties caused by a recent cold snap, the ever-present fear of eviction, and suspected police dirty tricks, the Occupiers also have another major problem: Their electrical generators were confiscated last week.

Police and city authorities removed the electrical generators and the gasoline that were powering them as suspected fire hazards, forcing the Occupy Wall Street protesters to find a new source of power--bicycle-powered generators. Although the Occupiers have their own Wi-Fi service set up at Zuccotti Park, a new campaign aims to create a dedicated VPN for Occupy protesters worldwide.

A non-profit organization called the Free Network Foundation (FNF) is currently soliciting funds on the IndieGoGo fundraising platform to build a dedicated autonomous system for Occupy protesters in multiple cities that will be secure and hacker-resistant. In 10 days of fundraising, the group has already raised approximately $12,000 toward their $75,000 goal.

Apart from dedicated Wi-Fi networks, Zuccotti Park and many other Occupy sites worldwide are blanketed by free Wi-Fi services. However, users on these networks are exposed to surveillance by law enforcement, intelligence services, and private parties. Even the private networks of the Occupy protesters, unless they have ironclad security, are easy pickings for Deep Packet Inspection.

The Free Network Foundation's project is built around the idea of constructing autonomous systems for protesters that can either connect to the Internet or be used exclusively for internal communications. These autonomous systems are intended to provide greater security than conventional Wi-Fi networks, while also promoting the idea of a cooperatively owned, non-profit Internet. While the FNF's goals for the Occupy Wall Street protesters have definite ideological aims, the technology behind it is genuinely fascinating.

The infrastructure for the FNF project is based around the creation of three separate products for the networks. Small, low-powered servers called FreedomNodes would enable individual groups of users at protests to own their data and connect to a larger network, while larger FreedomTowers would be set up that connect the individual nodes into a larger network. Meanwhile, the towers would interact with each other through a product called FreedomLink which would distribute bandwidth to individual users and let them interact with the larger Internet.

Activists associated with FNF have already set up FreedomTowers at Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Austin, and Occupy Los Angeles. According to the FNF's Isaac Wilder, the $75,000 fundraising drive will enable the organization to pay for the construction of the first three FreedomLinks and to provide support for DIY FreedomTower users.

Meanwhile, the Occupy Oakland protesters in the Bay Area attracted more than 100,000 attendees last Thursday in a scene reminiscent of Egypt's Tahrir Square. As journalists scramble to make sense of things, the question remains of what will happen to the rapidly growing protest movement as the winter chill sets in.

[Photo: Flickr user David Shankbone]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

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