Cisco's Tactical Operations Group Brings the Internet When No One Else Can
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Cisco's Tactical Operations Group Brings the Internet When No One Else Can

When the worst happens, communication saves lives.
August 3, 2015, 10:00am

The ground bucked and rocked in Nepal for more than two weeks. More than 8,000 people died. The physical destruction to the valley community was massive. Normally flat roads buckled beyond recognition. The quakes destroyed homes and livelihoods. Landslides and aftershocks worsened the damage around the Kathmandu Valley. Cell phones barely worked. Internet access was essentially nonexistent.

In the middle of a crisis, access to the net is important. It allows first responders to communicate with one another, keeps hospitals connected, and helps ensure governments don't collapse. The net also lets people living in disaster areas talk with their families and friends. And it all ties back to a simple truth: When the worst happens, communication saves lives.

"The fundamental challenge is: How do you get connectivity into a place that's very hard?" Cisco Tactical Operations (TacOps) engineer Rakesh Bharania told me. Cisco's TacOps unit was in Nepal within two weeks of the earthquake, and set up five different wifi networks in an effort to help the people and government maintain communications during the recovery effort. Even though they're designed to be a temporary measure, some are still running.

"We go into the middle of an emergency, and set up an open internet, we go to [disaster zones] with an official mission, and we integrate with the first responders on the scene," he said.

"Our team was created after September 11th, and we've been in Iraq and Afghanistan—the green zone in Baghdad," Bharania said. "If Anderson Cooper was there, I probably was too."

Sitting in the TacOps conference room at Cisco's sprawling San Jose offices, I glance around the white walls: they're covered with packing lists—wheeled suitcase, Pelican case, large rucksack—and other logistical notes in colored marker.

The other end from the door was a transparent viewing port into a data center, with quiet whirring and the faint smell of hot silicon under florescent lights.

I was in the room talking with Bharania, Cisco PR manager Bessie Wang, and Sue-Lynn Hinson, the manager of Tactical Operations. Hinson, the boss, was projected onto a wall-sized monitor from her office in North Carolina via one of the fancy video conferencing systems Cisco sells.

Hinson was telling me about how she used to be a volunteer firefighter. Most of the team has had similar experience or training as a first responder, and when deployed they operate self-sufficiently, carrying with them all necessary provisions for a deployment.

TacOps has nine team members, a handful of which were at the office, but at least a couple were deployed in Nepal, which the team wouldn't discuss in detail. Cisco also relies on hundreds of trained volunteers working for the company to augment TacOps.

The TacOps staffers were more than willing to geek out about their past operations: Hurricane Sandy, the 2011 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, and a tornado in Goderich, Ontario, for example. In total, Cisco's TacOps team has been deployed for 33 operations so far. Although TacOps doesn't get much press, they've been deploying temporary internet, or tempnet, in disaster zones since 2005.

"Our support is specifically for what we call the 'acute phase' of the emergency," Bharania told me later in an email message. "Once we start to move from response to recovery and the situation is more stable, we get the normal Cisco support functions involved."

I initially stumbled across the Cisco's disaster unit when I attended a hacker conference called Security B-Sides in San Francisco. Bharania was giving a frenetic talk about the importance of maintaining a secure tempnet, even during a situation as volatile as the aftermath of a disaster. For the TacOps unit, security means ensuring a tempnet isn't hacked.

It's not an abstract concern: Unknown assailants attempted to use malware and intrusion software on firefighter laptops during the Carlton Complex fire in Washington last year. The network equipment—think routers with security enhancements, and hardware firewalls—prevented the probes from advancing. Bharania said it wasn't clear whether the attempted breach was the result of software automatically trolling the web for vulnerabilities or orchestrated by a conscious actor specifically searching for a security flaw within firefighters' laptops. The probes didn't succeed.

Cisco's Tiago Silva gives a tour of TacOps' current tech.

The unit's goal is to "provide infrastructure, and establish connectivity for continuity of government, first responders, and other relief personnel," Bharania said. But, TacOps is only meant to be a short term solution; the unit isn't designed to permanently provide network access. For most deployments the team will establish a satellite link and distribute internet access through daisy-chained wifi routers, as well as fiber and ethernet hookups. Each one works differently.

Regardless of the location, the core strategy remains very similar in each case: Plan, pack, and travel. Get an internet connection, and then start building out a network with whatever means are at TacOps' disposal. Deployments are about 20 percent tech. The rest is planning and logistics.

When wildfires broke out in Washington state, TacOps brought their mobile command center, or Network Emergency Response Vehicle (NERV) truck, which they gave me a tour of while I visited the headquarters.

The NERV truck has a satellite dish on top, and the capacity to build out wireless and wired internet for about 1,000 users. With a satellite uplink they can achieve speeds of about 5 Mbps, and if they can snag an LTE signal, the network can reach speeds of 30-40 Mbps. Linking up to an LTE network may seem like adding a middleman—why ask someone else to create the internet if you can just connect via a cell modem?—but since most internet connected machines such as those in a hospital's network aren't equipped with cell modems, it makes more sense to use the networking tech that's already installed.

The inside of the NERV van smells like a server room, and there's the distinct computer noise: fans and an audible electric sounding buzz. The truck, along with a couple of support vehicles, sits in Cisco's parking lot, always powered and fueled in case of an emergency. It looks like something Supervillain Scorpio might drive around in—a mobile lair, complete with a war room, communications center, and extendible satellite dish.

In general, Cisco doesn't ship the truck around the world. It's charged with handling disasters that occur within driving distance from San Jose, such as the fire in Washington, and Hurricane Katrina. For a 2013 deployment to the Philippines for Typhoon Haiyan, the team didn't bring the mobile command center because it was too big and heavy to fit on the military transport provided.

Deployments such as the Philippines or Nepal require another set of gadgets, a sort of "insta-internet" in a box called a Rapid Response Kit (RRK). It's one of the most universally useful tools at TacOps' disposal. The plastic Pelican case is about the size of a carry on suitcase. Inside is a portable satellite dish, a router with Wifi, and enough networking gear to get a small network up and running with a few minutes.

Bharania said that after 10 minutes of instruction, basically anyone can learn how to connect to the internet via satellite and build a network in 15 to 30 minutes anywhere on Earth that the satellite uplink can be connected. TacOps designed the kits to fit into the overhead compartment of any commercial airliner, which makes them easy to transport when the unit needs to send them to others, or flies commercial airlines themselves. When TacOps went to the Philippines, they brought 4,000 pounds of gear.

As soon as the team hit the ground in the Philippines, TacOps set about inflating roughly eight-foot-diameter inflatable satellite dishes made by GATR. Once the internet connection is up, and the network installed, first responders were able to communicate, which meant about 10 to 15 people per GATR dish. Once one site was set up, TacOps repeated the process until it had networks in "15+ locations on four islands."

"We target two weeks for a team to be deployed," Hinson told me via Cisco's video conference setup. "When you're in an austere environment, physical and mental fatigue becomes an issue. When we deploy one team, we've got another prepping."

Cisco's disaster response unit isn't the only one operated by large tech companies. Microsoft, and Google, for example, have similar operations that focus on their core businesses. Other companies help out with disasters on a case by case basis: An Intel spokesman told me that although it doesn't have a division of the company set up, it does send equipment and personnel to disaster zones whenever possible.

And of course participants include other governments, as well as the United Nations—which has partnered with Ericsson's disaster unit—for multi-national efforts to attack the same problems of connectivity when it's most needed.

Bharania said that they often encounter the same people during deployments.

"It's a very tight-knit community," Bharania explained. "There are kind of standing chat rooms that are six, seven, eight years old on Skype. All of a sudden you start seeing real time communication with other units."

"I love helping people, I love having a tangible impact for what I do," Hinson, the boss, told me when I asked her why she chose to be a part of the TacOps team. "I get to help people, and I get to play with cool toys."

Top image: Cisco's NERV-2 response vehicle with a California Air National Guard HH-60G rescue helicopter in 2014. Image: Cisco