The Role of Safety in Community Wireless Networks

The most common question people ask when I talk about community wireless networks is “But is it secure?”

I have chatted with folks in my neighborhood, Mount Pleasant, for half a year about supporting the community wireless network I’m organizing here. The most common question they ask first is about “security” in an open network. It usually sounds just like this: “But is it secure?” And, painfully, they frequently interchange “open” and “secure” as regular as “work” for “job,” referring to a wireless network without passwords on the access points.

Recently, I thought about the values inherent in Commotion, an open source community wireless firmware project OTI is working on. Commotion will have built-in anonymization and security features. For all the importance of being secure from the start – security having new implications in the digital, networked world – the real potential of the network, the value growth, has to come from an intentional sharing and cooperation. Technical thinking about privacy though has got us in a general mood of securing against others, rather than actively reaching out. I suspect that this is the intent of ISPs, scaring everyone into locking down their wireless APs so no one will share their connection and everyone will have to buy their own Internet access. Plus some leftover hyper-individualistic attitudes from the Cold War.

This brings a new face to a problem of balance. I think that one part of the balance we seek when communicating – and one of the values that Commotion should stand for – is “safety.” Safety is a human term that’s understandable in its way to everyone, and yet we are likely to define it in different ways. For the whole communications network – infrastructure, software, the people involved – I think that “safety” is at the nexus of privacy, security, and awareness.

“Privacy” is keeping what you want to yourself – “to reveal yourself selectively,” to crib from Wikipedia. You have the right to “not be surprised” as Ashkan puts it. Your sense of others’ knowledge about your assets, information or affairs matters to your decisions and your well-being. Someone could sneak up to your window, or read information you send over a network, without you ever knowing – and without affecting the integrity of the information or your behavior.

“Security” is preventing your information, assets or affairs from being compromised or damaged. Unauthorized viewing of your data on a network is one thing, and having it scrambled, deleted, or secretly replaced is something else. Operation AntiSec, fueled by LulzSec and Anonymous hacktivists, brought this into the forefront of modern technology news. You have the right to not have your property damaged, of course, but the by-product of these attacks – whether by governments, corporations, or hacktivists of any stripe – is to make the digitally less-literate fearful of connecting and sharing. This is one of the things Commotion is meant to solve, with strong and reasonably sure encryption and anonymization by default. Which leads us to…

“Awareness,” the state of knowing what is going on in your environment and being reasonably confident of the consequences of your actions. Most people walk down the street reasonably confident they won’t be robbed, molested or attacked. If the odds were high enough you would be hurt, far fewer people would leave their houses and our society would suffer from the lack of voluntary connections. Security and privacy are great, but if people don’t understand what they mean, what is and is not protected, and what the likely consequences of their actions are on a network, then they are not going to be gregarious online. They will be recluses – society suffers again.

Bring these together and you have “safety,” something which I think all people can understand as a human right. Maslow’s hierarchy has it, we understand it to be a key human need on many levels, from freedom from violence to food security to knowing where tomorrow’s paycheck will come from. Technology needs to be built upon human needs, and so resolving those tensions – privacy versus sharing, security versus ease of use, awareness versus the vastness and complexity of networked communications technology – is paramount to developing a just, effective and enjoyable communications infrastructure.

By Preston

Agent of Change, Former of Entropy, Seeker of a Stateless World.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *