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Hacking confab conjures visions of space-borne 'SOPA Wars'

At annual European conference, hackers dream of a DIY satellite-communications network that would sidestep Internet censorship. But in the ungoverned realm of space, what's to stop any country from shooting down the satellites?

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
3 min read

Subversive satellite. Gregory R. Todd/Wikimedia Commons

A scrappy rebel alliance launches jury-rigged space weapons in the hope of defeating a monolithic empire that's put the choke hold on freedom.

Sound like a space opera you might've seen a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?

Actually, it's the latest imagined scenario to arise from one of Europe's major hacking conferences, which just wrapped up its 2011 edition in Berlin.

As the BBC's David Meyer reports, SOPA-hating hackers at the 28th Chaos Communication Congress (or 28C3) are hatching a plan to develop a DIY satellite-communications network that could keep the Internet alive and unfettered in the face of any government effort to pull the plug.

"The first goal is an uncensorable Internet in space," Meyer quotes hacktivist Nick Farr as saying. "Let's take the Internet out of the control of terrestrial entities."

Farr and others dream of a Hackerspace Global Grid made up of homemade satellites, along with ground stations for tracking and communicating with the self-made Sputniks.

Calls for donations went out earlier this year, and the project's organizers plan to have several prototype tracking stations ready in the first half of 2012 and to sell the completed devices on a nonprofit basis for about $130 apiece.

The backdrop for such a scheme involves, of course, various government efforts to control the Internet. Recent attempts have ranged from proposed legislation like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. to government-mandated blogger registrations in China to outright efforts to shut down the Net in places like Egypt and Libya.

The effort is also being touted during a resurgence in hacking-related activity and Internet-related activism that's involved the likes of hacking collective Anonymous and document-dump Web site WikiLeaks.

Would such a nongovernmental space program be able to get off the ground?

From a technical standpoint, a rocket-based approach wouldn't be out of the question--but it would require a hefty budget.

A low-cost alternative would involve balloon-launched satellites--more than one enthusiast has sent a gadget toward space using a simple, and affordable, balloon. But Meyer reports that unlike with more-precise rocket-powered launches, balloon launches would make pinpointing the satellites difficult. Hence the need for the low-cost tracking stations.

"It's kind of a reverse GPS," Meyer quotes project participant Armin Bauer as saying about the Hackerspace Global Grid tracking setup. "GPS uses satellites to calculate where we are, and this tells us where the satellites are...."

Still, says Meyer, there are other obstacles: Even with a lot of orbiting satellites, the gadgets wouldn't be visible to tracking devices all the time, making for significant interruptions in communications. And if the satellites were put into "geostationary" orbits above the equator, making them appear to sit in one place, they'd be so far away that their signals would take a long time to reach Earth, which, one surmises, would make for terribly long page-load times, among other things.

Perhaps the most intriguing obstacle, though, is a legal one: Meyer quotes University of Surrey professor Alan Woodward: "...outer space is not governed by the countries over which it floats. So, theoretically it could be a place for illegal communication to thrive. However, the corollary is that any country could take the law into their own hands and disable the satellites."

Cue the John Williams-penned fanfare and roll the linear-perspective titles. Even if the Hackerspace Global Grid never ends up firing a satellite into space, it certainly fires the imagination. What would it be like to know that the space-drones of a repressive regime were busily zipping around above us trying to vaporize messages of freedom--while down here on the ground, shadowy agents of the resistance were stealthily stashing their $130 tracking devices inside hollowed out books or papier-mache boulders?