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Skynet: Hackers Dream Up Censor-Proof Satellite Internet Grid

Skynet: Hackers Dream Up Censor-Proof Satellite Internet Grid

Organizers of a project called the "Hackerspace Global Grid" want to launch a network of small, low-orbiting satellites in order to facilitate Internet access that can't be blocked by government censors. The network would also include an array of base stations around the world. The project's developers are excited, but doubters say it's not going to fly.

By John P. Mello Jr.
01/04/12 9:16 AM PT

A group of computer enthusiasts have begun working on creating a satellite network that could be used to thwart censorship on the Internet.

Called the "Hackerspace Global Grid" (HGG), the network could provide a way for activists to access the Net when a repressive regime suppresses access within its borders.

The network would be based on a number of low orbiting "cube" satellites that would be networked in a way similar to the Internet. If one satellite were to be disabled, for example, its functions could be rerouted to others in the network.

Various amateur and educational organizations -- HAM radio operators, for example -- have found ways to get their cube satellites in orbit, and the hacker grid hopes to use those methods, as well as others, to get its spacecraft in low orbit too, according to Nick Farr, a hacker and accountant who is working on the project.

Cube Sat Explosion

"What we're seeing right now is a big explosion in people launching cube sats," Farr told TechNewsWorld.

Those satellites are small, have a near-earth orbit and have a small communication window with base stations on the ground.

To get a cube sat in the sky, amateur satellite launchers typically piggyback their bird on a bigger payload, Farr explained. Oftentimes launchers have more rocket than they need for their payload because of security, safety or some other reason. "So they'll have room for lots of smaller payloads that they can detach in near earth orbit," Farr said.

The HGG is now at its infancy stage. One of the first problems it has to solve is how to track the low orbiting satellites from the ground.

High orbiting satellites, like those used for telecommunications and geographic positioning, have a fixed position in the sky. That makes them easy to find from the ground.

The position of low orbiting satellites is more variable. What's more, they're moving fast, so the window for finding one and maintaining a connection to it is short.

Cellphone Net in Space

What the HGG is doing now is establishing a network of base stations around the world. Those stations won't be limited to tracking satellites, according to Armin Bauer, one of the lead hackers on the project.

"The first goal is to have the stations being able to track various things, for example airplanes, satellites, weather information," he told TechNewsWorld. "For various science fields, a large distributed sensor array is a good way to measure data."

Once the stations in the grid reach a certain critical mass, it would be possible for a network of low-orbiting satellites to be used much the way a cellular network operates. In a cellular network, calls are handed off to towers as a phone moves. With HGG, a communication link would be handed off from station to station as the satellite moves.

"We plan to have quite a lot of those stations distributed over the planet's whole surface, thus the grid can be used with these satellites since a satellite will always be in radio range of a ground station," Bauer explained.

Sidestepping Censors

Once the network is up and running, anyone could tap into it and reach the Internet from anywhere. "The whole point of it is to connect back to the global network to a place that's not as censored," Farr observed. So a person in China, for example, could link to the HGG and connect to the Internet through Germany or Japan and sidestep the domestic restrictions on their access.

"What they're doing is really cool and has a lot of interesting goals," Josh King, technology Visit the VMware Tech Center lead with the New America Foundation, told TechNewsWorld.

The foundation's Open Technology Initiative supports efforts to set up communication networks on the neighborhood, community and municipal level.

"They're creating a satellite network to connect people all over the world," King noted. "An endpoint of one of those satellite links might be an individual or a community network. Our project is building those community networks."

Lame Scheme

Creating a new satellite network is an ambitious project -- too ambitious in some people's minds.

"Satellite connections are expensive and slow," Tor Project development director Karen Reilly told TechNewsWorld. "It will take a lot of work to make this a more viable option."

The Tor Project offers free software that allows people to communicate anonymously on the Internet.

"This is the lamest scheme I have ever seen," Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst with IT-Harvest, told TechNewsWorld.

"The guys proposing this spouted off way before they put any thought into it," he said. "Give them points for dreaming big, but this project is going to need big dollars."

A satellite the size of Sputnik could contain enough equipment to allow text over IP communications along the lines of Twitter, he acknowledged. "But the cost would be over (US)$20 million to launch just one, and you would need almost 100 of them to give good coverage," he said.


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