At the Defcon hacker convention going on now in Las Vegas, roughly 650 attendees received a custom phone that allows them onto a secret local cell network called NinjaTel. Both Ars Technica and The Verge have stories offering screen shots and details, but I’m curious about the real world implications of this experiement.
Ars Technica says the network uses both a GSM network (not sure what frequency it’s operating in, or if it is indeed a real “pirate” network as The Verge asserts) and secured portions of the conference Wi-Fi :
For redundancy and reliability, Ninja Networks engineers took advantage of a feature added to the Ice Cream Sandwich release of Android that makes it easy to route calls over GSM or, using the SIP, or Session Initialization Protocol, over a private portion of the Defcon WiFi. As each subscriber was added to the network, a syncing app added the user to the list of contacts contain on all other phones, giving each person a way to text or call the other. An app contained on the custom phone made it easy for other users to write apps for the device.
Those with phones can only use voice or SMS, and are all visible as contacts on the network at any one time. There are peer-to-peer modes where folks can converse without going over the wider network as well as apps that let users interact with each other or other Ninja-approved devices. But outside creating some fun for hackers at a security conference, this type of network might be useful for places like Syria or Egypt where governments can control and shut down cellular networks as a means to cut off unrest.
I’ve written about a variety of projects–from Serval to OpenGSM — that could be used to create peer-to-peer or actual cell phone networks for groups of users to rely on when their own communications are spotty or compromised by hostile governments. Such networks could be a boon for democracy and freedom worldwide, but could also easily become a headache for law enforcement when in the wrong hands.
But the implementation of such networks by technologists, much like the development of the Internet, could provide a platform that helps democratize the flow of information. And trying that out, and possibly making versions of it that are ever easier to use on handsets could create yet another avenue for information sharing.
And for those who think that such technology isn’t needed in the U.S. or developed countries, just recall when the Bay Area Rapid Transit authorities shut down cell phone access on platforms because it was concerned about protests or when India wanted the ability to snoop on BlackBerry devices. So NinjaTel may be a cool one-off experiment today, but with time and work it may become the next-generation’s Internet. A massively democratic and redundant way to share information — even when governments would rather shut such information sharing down.