Invisible Islands

Using offline networks for urban intervention

By Mona Lalwani

Privacy is a myth on the Internet.

Celebgate and Sony made it all the more evident that a picture or an email is only private until it’s hacked. NSA’s pervasive spying on millions of citizens was made public knowledge, yet government surveillance continues to rise. According to the Web Index report, over 1.8 billion people “face severe violations of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression when they go online.”

Private lives are on public display online. But the infrastructure of the Internet is entirely hidden from view. “You hear people say we must take the Internet back to the people,” says Julian Oliver, an artist and co-author of the Critical Engineering Manifesto. “But the Internet has never belonged to the people.” It’s largely privatized and controlled by a few Internet Service Providers (ISPs) making it collapsible and corruptible.

In response to the online world, a breed of community-driven networks is starting to take shape offline. Designed to shelter users from surveillance, offline or mesh networks skip the core Internet service providers. Instead, they harness the built-in wifi capabilities of personal gadgets — smartphones, computers, and tablets — to connect and share data locally and securely. “In a war, for instance, each soldier would become the node of a mesh network,” says Oliver. Data can be pushed through the network from one node or device to the other until it reaches its destination, say a commander. “If the soldier disappears or is missing in action, the mesh network would have sufficient topological intelligence to reroute the packet,” he says. The network’s ability to find alternative routes on the fly makes it robust and reliable in disaster relief situations. But its applications extend beyond emergencies.

Sebastien Pierre, a Montreal-based artist and engineer, recently debuted Invisible Islands, an offline network that doubles as a social project. He devised a handy device that activates an Invisible Island—an untraceable network that allows people to communicate with each other directly using their personal gadgets and a series of QR codes. People in the vicinity of the device can virtually inhabit the Island to exchange information publicly yet anonymously.

Information is protected and relayed through QR codes that are displayed in a public space: A user prints and pastes, or paints, a code with the embedded information on a wall. Another user scans that code with a phone to unlock the information. “This creates a tangible bridge between the digital data overlay and the physical space,” says Pierre. “Making it more engaging for people to discover and understand their environment.”

The network can be deployed as a map to an architectural walk through a city. Users can access QR codes on a building to discover the history and specific architectural details of the structure. “They can connect and retrieve information based on what they’re looking at,” he says. “Digital annotation of this nature opens the door to anyone who witnesses the city.”

At the Media Architecture Biennale in Aarhus, Denmark, Pierre demonstrated the network’s ability to enhance the experience of a city for its users. The first Island was deployed in Molleparken, a popular park in front of the public library in Aarhus. The library employs QR codes on busts of historical figures outside for tourists to scan for information. But access to the information is restricted in the absence of Internet connectivity. With an Island activated in the vicinity, tourists and local students who frequent the space had instant offline access to the history of the library.

QR codes provide a blank canvas for people to create their own content and communication. During the biennale, a Danish boy scouts group ingeniously set up an Island as an interactive adventure game in the thick of a forest typically out of network coverage. On spotting a QR code pasted on a tree, the scouts used their phones to scan for directions to proceed to the next step in the game. Instead of eliminating the use of technology to force an interaction with the environment, technology was employed as a means to communicate with the physical world.

Pierre designed the offline network to encourage creativity but it could potentially protect avenues of artistic freedom and expression like street art. An image of a specific mural can be embedded in a QR code and pasted at the location where it appeared. In the event that the art is disfigured or wiped out by the city, as is often the case with graffiti, people who later visit the location can access the original art using their devices. “It uses the physical space as an archive for what happened in that location,” he says. “It transforms any place in the city in to a gallery.”

Offline archives can push users to engage with the physical environment. The interaction essentially binds them to the space that the network operates in: A user needs to be physically present in the radius of the device to access the information. And the software is designed to encrypt the information that’s stored. “The QR code is not only the key to access but also decrypt information,” says Pierre. “If you remove the QR code, even if the data is stored, it’s inaccessible.”

Pierre likens the offline data sharing experience to swapping parties of the pre-internet era in the late 80's. “People would bring floppy disks, some empty and others with programs, usually games, that they could swap with each other,” he says. “It was a physical meet up to exchange information. It faded with the arrival of the Internet but there’s a bit of heritage there.”

Traditionally offline networks have been the espionage way for many decades. Confidential information and items were covertly exchanged between spies and agencies. The Island provides a discrete outlet to whistleblowers looking to expose information of injustice or corruption within an organization. Volatile information can be locked into a QR code and its location can be communicated to the person receiving the information. A phone booth or an obscure building with a QR code can serve as a point of secure exchange.

Pierre designed the untraceable network’s infrastructure to be transparent and affordable. The device, roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes, is made from a combination of a Raspberry Pi — an inexpensive credit card sized processor board that can be connected to a keyboard, mouse and screen for a fully operable computing system — and a wifi dongle adaptor. In effect, it costs a little under $100 to set up the network.

Affordable offline solutions like Invisible Islands have proven to be potent in the developing world where online connectivity is still beyond the economic reach of many. But typically they are devised for, and often deployed in, unstable conditions where conventional Internet breaks down or is deliberately shut down and fails to carry data to its destination. In the event of the network shutdown in Iraq and censorship during the protests in Hong Kong, users flocked to FireChat, an app that imitates a mesh network and allows messaging without an Internet connection.

While community-owned networks are gaining momentum within their geographical scope, they’re not a replacement for the global network that connects billions of users across oceans and continents. “A town or a crowd of node carriers is a suitable context for a mesh network,” says Oliver. “But the idea that public infrastructure could just replace the Internet is a pipe dream. It would need to approach massive terrains of water and land in order to connect countries together.”

The challenges of these ad hoc networks are nascent. Like the Internet, where a massive population of haters and trolls thrives in the namelessness of their comments, the Island is open to all. “There might be people putting disturbing content,” says Pierre. “But that’s the nature of freedom of expression — you open the door to the good, bad and the ugly.”

Invisible Islands attempt to steer people away from the confines of the Internet and make them think about issues of freedom and privacy while revealing their dependency on the web. “A lot of work is focused on how to make this easy for everyone and how to create relevant stories and experiences that get people interested,” says Pierre. “It’s important to show them how something outside the Internet can be created that is of value.”