“Internet” Without Infrastructure – Part 1, by R.H.

Communication, outgoing and incoming, is obviously vitally important, but we tend to take for granted the various channels available to us at this time. The telephone, email, and even television and radio media rely on a huge amount of civil infrastructure– the same infrastructure that we rely on for water, sewage service, food, electrical power, transportation, shipping and basic mail, and both fire suppression and law enforcement services. The Internet has become a vital part of that infrastructure. Without a functional power grid and cable or telephone service, the Internet does not exist. It could be argued that, even in the total absence of the rest of the infrastructure, very basic Internet services, such as email and even limited access to local, national, and world news, could mean the difference between survival and death for many, or at least the difference between sanity and insanity. At the very least, they could become a substitute for the postal and telephone services and would be extremely helpful. There is a way to provide these basic services without the normal infrastructure. By transferring files from computer to computer in any ways available, it’s possible to build a very broad “Internet” of sorts.

Imagine your favorite (or most dreaded) TEOTWAWKI scenario. Now, alter it slightly by introducing very basic, albeit slow, email service, access to at least a few of your most trusted blogs, and some community or national news sites for security information, news, and want ads. It’s at least an improvement, isn’t it? Is it really practical? Absolutely!

In case you think that I am just talking about copying files between computers in your neighborhood, or on the other hand that I am talking about some grand idea of replacing the whole Internet, please hear me out. This is something that is inevitably going to happen anyway if/when the infrastructure fails. It will happen in some form and to some degree. However, with a little organization and adoption of some very basic standards, it could give us all a viable substitute that could provide the most vital elements of modern communication and media, even after TEOTWAWKI. When this happens, it will probably have a name of some sort, but there is no telling what name will stick. It could be called “Internet Without Infrastructure” (IWI), “The SneakerNet”, “SneakerWeb”, “Big SneakerNet”, “The UnderNet”, “The UnderWeb”, or any number of names I could think of. In this article, I will just refer to it as “the network”.

Executive Summary

Here’s the summary of how it works, with much more detail to follow:

  1. Each separate communication or blog entry is put into a small file (text, binary, encrypted or whatever).
  2. The filename of the file is unique, but it also always starts with the unique address of the recipient (which is mutually agreed upon in advance or, if not, the recipient’s pre TEOTWAWKI email address). In the case of a blog entry or site, the URL is used.
  3. The file is put onto a USB key, flash drive, or SD card, along with hundreds, thousands, or millions of other messages. The USB key, flash drive, or SD card is called a “mail pouch” or just a “pouch”.
  4. A “Postmaster” (anyone with a working computer and a willingness to help) seeks out other Postmasters and swaps files with him/her, copying all files from pouch A to pouch B, then back to A, ignoring any duplicates. At this point, both pouches now contain a combination of everything from both.
  5. Each Postmaster, in turn, seeks out other Postmasters and exchanges the messages in their pouches with them in the same manner.
  6. To receive a message (or see a blog or website), the recipient contacts any Postmaster and searches for his own unique address, or the name of the blog or site, in the master mail pouch.
  7. Postmasters apply a few simple protocols (described later) to purge old messages, prevent sabotage, keep the system running, and maintain the integrity of the network.

In one sentence, it’s: “Put your message in a file, give the file a unique name that always starts with the destination address, and then spread the message far and wide.”

There are technical aspects to this, which I cover here for completeness, but not everyone needs to know everything about it. The better it is generally understood, the better it will work, but Postmasters will inevitably be the specialists who know the techniques better than anyone else.

As soon as I’ve described the few technology items that are required to bring this about, I’ll give the rest of how it works, what the protocols are, and various ways that it can be used to provide secure, anonymous communication in a community, a region, a country, or the world.


What’s Required?

Only a few basic technology items are necessary, but no real infrastructure is required.

Computers. Some computers, of course, must have survived any EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse, caused by a solar event or military nuclear device) that might have been part of the event that triggered the TEOTWAWKI scenario in the first place. Of course, they must be kept powered or charged as well. These computers could be desktops, if someone has the ability to keep them powered, but laptops would be very much preferable, requiring less power and being more mobile. In theory, tablets or smartphones (iPhone or Android) could be made to work, but it would require special skills to set them up and probably some custom applications. For now, let’s assume that we will use full computers, such as laptops or desktops, running Windows, Mac, or Linux operating systems. Another thing to remember is that computers, like anything else, eventually break. So, of course, the saying “two is one, and one is none” applies to computers also.

Power. I can’t stress enough the importance of being able to keep the computers powered or charged. This can be done with solar cells or generators, but don’t count on fuel being available or wait until after TEOTWAWKI to find out that your solar cells won’t cut it.

If there is an EMP, it’s very likely that any computers that were plugged directly into the grid at the time, and even many (or most?) that were not plugged in, will be “fried”. In addition, even those that were not plugged in, especially those with antennas inside them (which is really ALL laptops, tablets, and phones these days) are likely to be unusable, unless they were protected by a Faraday cage. A Faraday cage can be built inexpensively and easily in a variety of ways with common items, such as aluminum foil, an ammo can or a metal trash can, et cetera. The subject of Faraday cages is covered elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here.

Portable Storage. Portable storage can be in the form of USB Keys, SD cards, micro SD cards, or small external USB drives. All of these items have become quite inexpensive, which is good, because we need lots of them! I will call each device a “mail pouch” or just “pouch”, just to give them a common name and so I don’t have to keep writing “USB Key” or “USB Key or SD card”. Writeable DVD’s could also be useful for making backups or possibly transferring data between machines that have compatible drives, but USB Keys and SD cards are best.

Adaptors. The only other thing required is adaptors. Just about all laptops, at the time of this writing, have a USB plug, but not all have SD card slots. A simple and inexpensive USB adaptor, available at Amazon or eBay for under $10, solves this. A micro SD card normally comes with an adaptor that makes it into an SD card, so these can be read and written using the same USB adaptor. Some adaptors come with slots of various sizes to accommodate all available sizes of SD cards, which is nice, but not absolutely necessary.

In spite of their low cost, adaptors may be the weakest link in this whole scheme. Computers are everywhere, and lots of people have USB Keys lying around. There is an SD card in just about every digital camera. Micro SD cards are in many smartphones, but adaptors are a bit less common. Post TEOTWAWKI these adaptors might not be available, so make sure you have extras. Without them, we can still use USB keys only, but that would be a shame considering how ubiquitous the SD and Micro SD cards are, and because of their other advantages that will be covered later. Micro SD cards are slower and more expensive than SD cards and USB Keys, but they also may be surprisingly easy to come by after TEOTWAWKI, since they can be “mined” from piles of now useless cell phones.

What is SneakerNet?

SneakerNet is an old term (see WikiPedia, lots of good information there). It started out as a joke. I remember it from the 80’s. Basically, it’s the idea of transferring data between computers by copying it onto some medium, which could be a USB key, SD drive, CD drive, or in the old days a floppy disk and then walking it over to another computer (in your “sneakers”) and copying it to that computer. One of the most important things that a computer network (including the Internet) does, is to transfer information between computers. Without a broad civil infrastructure, most networks fail. However, as long as you have computers and portable storage, you can still have a network of sorts, even if it’s just “SneakerNet”. Reportedly, Osama bin Laden evaded the NSA for years and kept his organization running using his own SneakerNet. However, what I’m talking about is much broader than that.