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The hacktivist group Anonymous is working on a new communication tool to circumvent censorship and set information free, and it’s going low-tech this time. The project is called Airchat, and it will use radio waves instead of wifi, broadband, or phone lines to communicate data and messages between computers. It’s basically pirate radio for ones and zeros.
The idea for Airchat was hatched because of the “lessons learned in the Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian revolutions, but also from the experience of Occupy Wall Street and Plaza del Sol,” explains the project description on Github, posted under “Lulz Labs,” which was spotted by International Business Times. With social upheaval in Ukraine and Venezuela and other places around the world, a safe anonymous way for dissidents to organize movements and share information is as relevant as ever.
The radio communication works much like a two Way Radio or CB radio, with the transmitter acting as a sender and receiver—only you’re sending computer commands instead of audio.
This kind of readio data transfer has been done before. The concept has existed since ALOHAnet was introduced in 1971, a University of Hawaii project that sent data over radio. In 2010, a startup called OneBeep created software that transfered data over radio waves by converting it into an audio signal and then back to the original information packets for the computer to translate.
The team also experimented with laser light-based transmissions, a more complicated method of transmitting data through the pulse of a laser beam, but decided to put a pin in that for now.
Beyond political dissidence, the group writes that Airchat could be used for disaster relief, by support groups or medical teams, or by sailors to communicate weather conditions out at sea. Basically, it could be used any time you need information and traditional communication methods are down.
The end goal is to make this all available for free—“free as in ‘free beer’ and free as in ‘Jeremy Hammond must be freed,” the group writes—without the control of megacorporations or heavy-handed governments.
“Even after all these years of technology advance, we still need to meet in common public places to continue expressing ourselves in a free way,” they write.
We’ve seen apps like Zello play a major role for rebel groups in Venezuela and Ukraine, becoming the go-to walkie talkie app that gave protesters the ability to communicate in private voice messages on the go. The problem with Zello, as was witnessed in Venezuela, is that it can only run using wifi or a data plan. With Airchat, which will use both encrypted and non-encrypted radio waves, that shouldn’t be an issue.
In its current incarnation, the project uses Fldigi software to communicate data—it’s the software commonly used to broadcast amateur radio stations from a computer. The machine’s sound card controls most of the communication of information to and from the transmitter using audio-frequency signals. It typically works on Linux, OSX, and Windows.
The radio transmitter is operated by keyboard commands, and Airchat can be programmed to let you send messages, access Twitter streams, download news, or find community related articles, the group writes. For extra security, the program will is capable of using anonymous Tor servers and proxy support.
So far, they’ve had trouble transferring images via Google’s WebP format, due to lack of browser support, but they’re still working out the kinks.
As it currently exists, as you can see in the Vimeo video posted this week, the program is still quite technical for everyday folk. At this point Airchat is still a proof of concept, and the group is releasing early information about it to try to rally community support and funding.
But it’s already been used by Anonymous to play chess with people 180 miles away, share images and communicate “encrypted low bandwidth digital voice chats.” They have also accomplished 3D printing at distances over 80 miles and have been able to send medical orders at distances over 100 miles.
It works, but it doesn’t operate at high-speeds, and the clarity of the connection depends on the strength of your radio signal. As the group writes, it “sacrificed bandwidth for freedom.”