Here's some crazy nascent ideas I have for getting information in and out of Russia when other methods fail. From what I'm seeing, current Internet censorship efforts focus on... the Internet.
It's worth remembering that there are plenty of other ways to use technology to communicate that don't use the Internet as we generally think of it.
Bear Surprise Introduction
Most of what I know about Russian and Russian-adjacent culture is from using LiveJournal in the early-to-mid 2000s. I know Bear Surprise and Как пропатчить KDE2 под FreeBSD. So, I'm hijacking the former college-aged meme for my oddball collection of censorship-subverting telecommunication ideas, and dubbing them the Bear Surprise Freedom Network. (If you have similar ideas, please feel free to reuse this term—it would be cool if someone could search “bear surprise freedom network _____” and find potential technology workarounds to whatever the Russian government might prevent them from doing).
It's likely I'm missing a lot of political and cultural subtleties related to Padonkaffsky jargon. I'm not trying to make some kind of weird point with it. The bear stuff just always made me laugh, even though I'm sure I was/am missing a lot of context.
I'm talking about a lot of radio stuff, and I'm something of a radio dilettante. If you're an expert here, I would appreciate any feedback you have.
This article is short on implementation details, because I'm short on them. These are all things I've seen work in one form or another at different points in my life. You might well ask, "how do you expect people who don't know where their next meal will come from to care about this?" That's a good question, and I don't have a good answer to it. I can say if there are interested parties looking for novel ideas to implement ways to exchange information that will be difficult to censor, there are some here.
Here's eight ideas.
1. Medium: Landlines, Technology: FidoNet
It looks like landlines still exist in Russia, and there's still BBSes in FidoNet Region 50 (Russia) as of March 11, 2022.
What is FidoNet?
FidoNet was started in the 1980s by young boys and girls with dogs in the United States as an attempt to imitate IP over Avian Carriers, except with more reliable canines rather than pigeons. Sort of like Stranger Things meets Weird Science meets The Dog Whisperer. Hence, the FidoNet name and logo using the likeness of the dogs that carried TCP and UDP packets written to floppy disks.
(I'm being cheeky... it's hard to describe quickly how BBSes worked, and more than that how they were networked. If you're not familiar, Jason Scott's documentary is an excellent resource. But the above graph is real.).
During the first Iraq war I remember stories about family being able to use FidoNet to send email to America soldiers stationed around Kuwait. That would take about two days, but it worked.
There's no reason it couldn't work now, and even work better.
Here's how to join FidoNet.
2. Medium: Ham Radio, Technology: Winlink
Winlink Global Radio Email is a network of amateur radio and authorized government stations that provide worldwide radio email using radio pathways where the internet is not present. The system is built, operated and administered entirely by licensed "Ham" volunteers. It supports email with attachments, position reporting, weather and information bulletins, and is well-known for its role in interoperable emergency and disaster relief communications. It is capable of operating completely without the internet--automatically--using smart-network radio relays. Licensed Winlink operators/stations use both amateur radio and government radio frequencies worldwide. Support for the system is provided by the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation, Inc., a US 501(c)(3) non-profit, public-benefit entity. Winlink Global Radio Email®️ is a US registered trademark of the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation, Inc.
This is American-focused, but I see no reason why it couldn't be repurposed in Russia.
3. Medium: Shortwave Radio, Technology: WinDRM
I'm not enough of a radio person to know if there is an important technical distinction between ham frequencies and shortwave. But WinDRM is said to function on 14236 kHz and the FCC says Shortwave is between 5950 kHz and 26100 kHz.
Like Winlink, WinDRM also facilitates sending data, but I'm hoping it could work at longer distances.
WinDRM is an amateur radio derivation of the Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) digital voice and data transmission protocol. Known as HamDRM, and Digital SSTV. Uses the same technology from commercial DRM broadcasts, with COFDM-QAM modulation, and is able to send text, voice, and images. This format was first adopted for amateur use by Francesco Lanza HB9TLK in his own version of Dream, an open-source DRM decoder. This technology was later adopted into WinDRM.
4. Medium: 802.11/D-STAR, Technology: HSMM
HSMM is high-speed multimedia radio. You use technologies like OpenWRT to modify commercial off-the-shelf equipment and connect it to ham-grade antennas that are able to amplify the signal. The routers all talk to each other in a mesh network that could span the area of a city. You connect to one of the routers in the mesh network, and it works like a mini-Internet. Maybe you go real old school and use a cantenna to connect to it.
The site Broadband-Hamnet, that I used to associated with this, doesn't seem to have been updated since 2015, and the Wikipedia node list is suspiciously short. It seemed like there was a spike in interest in these in the mid-2010s, that waned. But, now may we have the perfect application revive interest in them.
5. Medium: 1200/440/144 MHz, Technology: BBSes
Hams used to run BBSes on using Terminal Node Controllers (TNCs) connecting to commercial radios. They could run at 128 kbps, 9600 bps or 1200 bps depending on the band. "Used to" meaning I remember this being popular, but I believe it still occurs rarely now. The equipment is probably still out there and cheap, but maybe hard to get to Russia. Still, it's an idea.
6. Combine HSMM, Winlink, and WinDRM
Make a network using:
- HSMM for short distances (~1-9 miles).
- Winlink for moderate distances (~10-100 miles?)
- WinDRM (100+ miles)
Again, I'm not enough of a radio nerd to know what would be realistic distances here, but I don't see a reason why the general idea couldn't work.
7. Combine TNC BBSes with FidoNet
Russians could setup TNC BBSes and run "FidoNet" (or more likely a special purpose FidoNet-like networks using echomail, these used to be called echonets and at one point there were hundrends of them) to transmit mail from one to another.
8. Use RINA instead of TCP/IP
All of the deep packet inspection stuff Russia is doing, I can say is almost certainly, is designed to look at TCP/IP traffic. Build software using a different standard, like Recursive InterNetwork Architecture (RINA), and they'll have a lot of catching up to do before they can effectively monitor your traffic like they do with TCP/IP.
Is this security through obscurity?
All of the radio and BBS schemes here could still be tracked by the Russian government. But the Russian government is focused on blocking Internet traffic and it would take them time to catch up to people using novel communication methods. It would also divert their finite tech-savvy law enforcement resources.
So... yes, this is security/privacy through obscurity. But it just needs to remain sufficiently obscure through the duration of the conflict.