In a blog last week I talked about an alternate model for the Internet that can make it safer to communicate with others. The idea that I explored last week was to base web transactions on block chains, which is a technology that decentralizes communications without needing to pass through centralized servers.
Today I want to talk about mesh networks as another idea on how to develop safer communications. There is now a movement within the country to create mesh networks as an alternate to the traditional web. Mesh networks have been around a long time. The concept of a mesh is simple. Today’s Internet relies solely upon making every connection for every transaction through an ISP. The ISP, using a series of servers and routers, then directs your traffic to where it’s supposed to go.
But it is these servers and routers that are the weak points in today’s web. First, the ISP is recording everything you do and mining every piece of data you send through them. These servers and routers are also where malicious entities get access to your data, making you vulnerable to everybody from hackers to the NSA.
The idea of a mesh network is to skip these intermediate checkpoints whenever possible. In a mesh network every device in the mesh is able to communicate directly with the other devices within the mesh. Picture, as an example, a neighborhood where all of the households meshed their WiFi networks together. In such a network you could communicate with anybody in the neighborhood and exchange data with them without having to go back to the ISP network. It would function as if you were all on the same WiFi network within a home. Granted there is not generally that much traffic exchanged with your neighbors, so such a network would be of limited use. But it’s an example of how a mesh works.
There are other existing examples of mesh technology today. For example, there are now a lot of applications for smartphones using bluetooth. These applications let people in close proximity to each other exchange business cards or texts or other forms of communication that don’t first get routed back to the cellphone hub. Any data exchanged in this local manner is not subject to being recorded or tracked at the hub.
Probably the biggest use of mesh today is Firechat. This is a mesh app for smartphones that lets users within close proximity communicate with each other using Bluetooth. This is big with younger people and there are over five million people using the app. With Firechat kids can message each other privately at concerts or at school if there are enough users in close proximity to create a mesh network. The app allows for private communications are private and also can provide the ability to message in places where cellular or texting doesn’t work.
Is it possible to take the idea of mesh networks further than is being done today to make them practical in a wider setting? I can picture such networks. For example, the students at a university could band together to create a mesh network from all of their WiFi connections. Inside such a mesh the students could communicate with each other free of the University servers recording everything they do and say. Such a mesh network would be decentralized and nobody would be able to monitor or record what was done on the mesh. Over time, private connections could be established between different university mesh networks, which would allow students to also communicate with students on other university mesh networks.
It would be a lot of work to establish and maintain such a network, but there are a lot of people who are growing alarmed at all of the spying done upon us on the open web. Mesh networks would pull people-to-people communication out of the open web and make it private. When somebody on the web chose to make a connection to the current web, and say, make an enquiry on Google, then Google would be able to track them just as is done today. But communication inside the mesh network could provide an alternative to social media or using one of the public messaging services, all of which are monitored by somebody.
Mesh networks are certainly not a total solution to achieving privacy on the web. But it can be one more tool in creating an alternate mode for communication that is not subject to spying. One can picture the ability to join different mesh networks for different purposes, each of which provides you some privacy and which keeps some parts of your web life off the original Internet, which today suffers from cybercrime, data mining, constant surveillance, and the fear of hacking.
There are a few organizations like Commotion and The Free Network Foundation that distribute software and information on how to establish a mesh network. But so far this has been a very tiny effort being promulgated by privacy advocates. It probably will take some entrepreneurs to establish more widespread mesh networks if they are ever going to take hold as an alternate to the existing web. The tools needed to do this exist already and perhaps somebody will take the initiative to create a nationwide mesh network for messaging, chat, and texting, away from the existing web.
I think there is at least some chance that hacking will become so invasive that people will be seeking alternative ways to communicate. If mesh networks are combined with other tools like block chains, then perhaps we can all take back some of our online life from the many entities who spy on us today.