Imagine waking up and checking your phone after several evenings of mass demonstrations. You try scrolling through your Twitter feed, but it won’t load. You turn your router off and on to no avail. You try texting a friend to complain, but the message fails to send. Frustrated, you walk outside. People scattered along the sidewalk look as disoriented and confused as you feel—except for police officers and the National Guard, who are forcefully telling everyone to immediately return to their homes over a loudspeaker.
Currently, most of us would have no choice but to retreat into isolation in such a situation. But organizers and programmers with the Mycelium Mesh Project are hoping to provide a solution by designing a decentralized, off-grid mesh network for text communications that could be deployed quickly during government-induced blackouts or natural disasters.
“The network that we all use will work pretty much fine in 99.9% of the cases. But then when it doesn't, it's a real big problem,” Marlon Kautz, an organizer and developer with the project, told Motherboard. “The authorities' control over our communications infrastructure can just completely determine what is politically possible in a situation where the future is really up for grabs, where people are making a move to change things in a serious and radical way.”
Mesh networks, a form of intranet distributed across various nodes rather than a central internet provider, have the potential to decrease our collective reliance on telecommunication conglomerates like Spectrum and Verizon. Nonprofits, like NYC Mesh, are increasingly offering relatively affordable internet alternatives by installing mesh nodes at people’s homes, which then connect to “supernodes” and the internet at large. One such network was set up at an encampment outside city hall in New York City, during the height of last summer's protests against police violence.
During a civil unrest situation, government operatives could theoretically disconnect established commercial mesh networks by raiding activists' homes and destroying their nodes or super nodes. The Mycelium Mesh Project is addressing this potential weak link by developing a system that could be deployed at a moment’s notice in non-locations, such as on abandoned buildings, tree tops, electric boxes and utility poles.
Nodes would be cheap, run independently of the power grid, and could be produced with materials that can be obtained locally. So far, the collective has successfully sent and received text messages across thirteen miles during field testing around Atlanta, Georgia with nodes powered by rechargeable batteries harvested from disposable vapes.
The scenario they are prepping for is less far-fetched than it may initially seem. In 2011, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) police shut down wireless service for three hours to disrupt protests against the agency’s murder of Oscar Grant and Charles Hill. In 2016, Water Protectors at Standing Rock claimed that their cell phone signals frequently disappeared and had difficulties with livestreams and uploading videos and other posts to social media. In February of this year, Myanmar’s military dictatorship shut down telecommunications and Wi-Fi across most of the country during its coup d’état. Connections can also become unreliable due to less nefarious reasons, such as when networks become congested during mass events like protests and music festivals.
“This internet shutdown doesn't happen in a situation where everything is going well,” a Burmese human rights activist in Myanmar told Wired UK. “They are cracking down on the protests, killing civilians. You live in fear that something can happen to you at night. And you think: if there is no internet, you cannot talk to your friends or colleagues about what is happening.” Since 2019, 45 countries have shut down the internet 239 times, according to the internet research firm Top10VPN.
During the Black liberation uprisings in the U.S. last summer, the government chose not to shut down communication networks. Instead it seemed to strategically gather intel with stingrays and dirtboxes, which collect data from cell phones en masse. But Kautz says a shutdown could happen next time.
The Communications Act of 1934 allows the president to shut down or take control of “any facility or station for wire communication” in the US. And while civil liberties groups like the ACLU and EFF have argued shutoffs violate the First Amendment, there is no legal precedent stating they are strictly off-limits. “It is the backstop, it is the joker, it is the ace card and there are more than enough examples to demonstrate that the state will do this kind of thing if they need it to maintain control,” Kautz said.
The Mycelium Mesh Project is still in its relatively early stages of development. Messages aren’t encrypted—a necessary feature for activists—and the model isn’t ready for long-range use. But developers are hopeful that their open-source model will promote cooperation amongst like-minded coders.
“This is anti-capitalist work, which is non-commercial. We are not trying to start a business,” Kautz explained. “We're explicitly trying to take advantage of open source type concepts. So not not only do we want the code that we're developing to be open source, but our entire production model will be.”