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Spy-proof networks, but fears on privacy

SAYADA, Tunisia — This Mediterranean fishing town, with its low, whitewashed buildings and sleepy port, is an unlikely spot for an experiment in rewiring the global Internet. But residents have a surprising level of digital savvy and sharp memories of how the Internet can be misused.

Academics and computer enthusiasts who took part in the 2011 uprising in Tunisia that overthrew a government deeply invested in digital surveillance have helped their town become a test case for an alternative: a physically separate, local network made up of cleverly programmed antennas scattered about on rooftops.

The State Department provided $2.8 million to a team of US hackers, activists, and software geeks to develop the system, called a mesh network, as a way for dissidents abroad to communicate more freely and securely.


Even before the network in Sayada went live in December, pilot projects financed in part by the State Department proved that the mesh could serve poor neighborhoods in Detroit and function as a digital lifeline in part of Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy. But just like people overseas, Americans increasingly cite fears of government snooping in explaining the appeal of mesh networks.

“There’s so much invasion of privacy on the Internet,” said Michael Holbrook, of Detroit, referring to surveillance by the National Security Agency.

Since this mesh project began three years ago, its original aim — foiling government spies — has become an awkward subject for US officials and some of the technical experts.

The NSA, as described in secret documents leaked by former contractor Edward J. Snowden, has been shown to be a global Internet spy with few, if any, peers.

“Exactly at the time that the NSA was developing the technology that Snowden has disclosed, the State Department was funding some of the most powerful digital tools to protect freedom of expression around the world,” said Ben Scott, a former State Department official now at a Berlin policy nonprofit, New Responsibilities Foundation.


Sayada’s mesh network’s users have access to a local server containing Wikipedia in French and Arabic, town street maps, 2,500 free books in French, and an app for secure chatting and file sharing. The mesh is not linked to the wider Internet.

There are some drawbacks, as communications can slow when signals make multiple “hops” from one router to another, leading some Internet experts to question how large a single mesh could grow. Other experts counter that mesh networks in Europe, including some serving large sections of Berlin, Vienna, and Barcelona, have thousands of routers, although they require highly technical skills.

Many of those networks were built to compensate for spotty or nonexistent coverage by corporate Internet providers. A similar motivation is at work in some Detroit neighborhoods, where the State Department financed trial runs of mesh networks as a low-cost gateway to wireless Internet access and as a community organizing tool.

But privacy issues provoke intense discussion, particularly among groups that have been targets of racial and other profiling, said Diana J. Nucera, community technology director at an organization called Allied Media Projects, which has helped Detroit neighborhoods put up mesh networks.

“I don’t want the NSA, the government, anyone to necessarily know how I think about something,” Holbrook, an African-American who is a Detroit social and political activist, said at a workshop led by Nucera.