A team of researchers from Germany have suggested that WiFi routers in homes and businesses could be used to facilitate a backup mesh network in the case of an emergency by first responders.
German scientists have unveiled a plan today to knit together wireless routers in homes and offices in order to provide a communications network for emergency responders; this network would be a backup in case the mobile phone networks failed. In many countries there are so many routers in even a medium-sized town that they would provide near-total coverage in the event of an emergency where cellphone networks are overwhelmed by people caught up in an emergency, making them the perfect vehicle for a backup network.
Kamill Panitzek and his colleagues at the Technical University in Darmstadt walked around their city center in order to pinpoint the location of various wireless routers (without invading the privacy of those networks). They found that, in an area of just a half of a square kilometer, there were 1,971 routers, of which 212 were public, non-encrypted routers. With such a dense coverage, an emergency network could piggyback off of the nearby networks, giving first responders internet access and communications capabilities.
“With a communication range of 30 meters, a mesh network could be easily constructed in urban areas like our hometown,” said the research team. They suggest that the routers could incorporate a virtual emergency switch that responders could activate to set up a backup network, giving them voice and data capabilities through the internet. This could be done quite easily without hindering users or invading their privacy, according to the researchers. Many routers already have a “guest” mode, which allows guests to use a network even if they wouldn’t normally have access to it. “The emergency switch would enable an open guest mode that on the one hand protects people’s privacy, and on the other hand makes the existing communications resources available to first responders,” says the paper.
Questions should also be raised about the potential security risks of a network setup like this. If routers were built with an emergency back door, all it would take for a hacker to do something anonymously is to find out how to activate that emergency network, bypassing any cracking of the wireless network and giving them full access to an anonymous, backdoor, potentially untraceable playground in which to do anything they want. While the potential benefits of such a network are obvious, the potential security holes should have given these researchers pause.