Mission Reports

Sun 18 June 2017

Filed under Ubuntu

Well, taking just over 60 days to write again is not generally a good sign. Things have been incredibly busy at the day job. Finding out that a Reduction In Force is expected to happen in late September/early October also sharpens the mind as to the state of the economy. Our CEO at work is somewhat odd, to say the least. Certain acts by the CEO remain incredibly confusing if not utterly baffling.

In UK-slang, I guess I could probably be considered a "God-botherer". I've been doing work as an evangelist lately. The only product though has been the Lord's Kingdom. One of the elders at church wound up with their wife in a local nursing home due to advanced age as well as deteriorating health so I got tasked with conducting full Sunday services at the nursing home. Compared to my day job, the work has been far more worthwhile serving people in an extended care setting. Sadly it cannot displace my job that I am apparently about to lose in about 90 days or so anyhow thanks to pending actions of the board and CEO.

One other thing I have had running in the background has been the external review of Outernet. A short research note was drawn up in LaTeX and was submitted somewhere but bounced. Thanks to the magic of Pandoc, I was able to convert it to HTML to tack on to this blog post.

The Outernet rig in the garage

The Outernet rig is based in my garage to simulate a field deployment. The goal by their project is to get these boards into the wild in places like the African continent. Those aren't "clean room" testing environments. If anything, temperature controls go out the window. My only indulgence is that I added on an uninterruptible power supply due to known failures in the local grid.

The somewhat disconnected Raspberry Pi B+ known as ASTROCONTROL to connect to the Outernet board to retrieve materials

Inside the house a Raspberry Pi running Raspbian is connected via Ethernet to a Wi-Fi extender to reach out to the Outernet board. I have to manually set the time every time that ASTROCONTROL is used. Nothing in the mix is connected to the general Internet. The connection I have through Spectrum is not really all that great here in Ashtabula County.

As seen through ConnectBot, difficulties logging in

The board hit a race condition at one point recently where nothing could log in. A good old-fashioned IT Crowd-style power-cycling resolved the issue.

Pulling files on the Outernet board itself as seen in a screenshot via Cathode on an iPad

Sometimes I have used the Busybox version of tar on the board to gather files to review off the board.

The Outernet UI as seen on a smartphone

The interface gets a little cramped on a smartphone like the one I have.

And now for the text of the paper that didn't make the cut...

Introduction

A current endeavor is to review the Outernet content distribution system. Outernet is a means to provide access to Internet content in impaired areas.1 This is not the only effort to do so, though. At the 33rd Chaos Communications Congress there was a review of the signals being transmitted with a view to reverse engineering it.2 The selection of content as well as the innards of the mainboard shipped in the do-it-yourself kit wind up being areas of review that continue.

In terms of concern, how is the content selected for distribution over the satellite platform? There is no known content selection policy. Content reception was observed to try to discern any patterns.

As to the software involved, how was the board put together? Although the signals were focused on at the Chaos Communications Congress, it is appropriate to learn what is happening on the board itself. As designed, the system intends for access to be had through a web browser. There is no documented method of bulk access for data. A little sleuthing shows that that is possible, though.

Low-Level Software

The software powering the mainboard, a C.H.I.P. device, was put together in an image using the Buildroot cross-compilation system. Beyond the expected web-based interface, a probe using Nmap found that ports were open for SSH as well as traditional FTP. The default directory for the FTP login is a mount point where all payloads received from the satellite platform are stored. The SSH session is provided by Dropbear and deposits you in a Busybox session.

The mainboard currently in use has been found to have problems with power interruption. After having to vigorously re-flash the board due to filesystem corruption caused by a minor power disruption, an uninterruptible power system was purchased to keep it running. Over thirty days of running, as measured by the Busybox-exposed command uptime, was gained through putting the rig on an uninterruptible power supply. The system does not adapt well with the heat as observed in the summer in northeast Ohio as we have had to power-cycle it to reboot it during high temperature periods as remote access became inaccessible.

Currently the Outernet mainboard is being operated air-gapped from other available broadband to observe how it would operate in an Internet-impaired environment. The software operates a Wi-Fi access point on the board with the board addressable at 10.0.0.1. Maintaining a constant connection through a dedicated Raspberry Pi and associated monitor plus keyboard has not proved simple so far.

Content Selection

Presently a few categories of data are routinely transmitted. Weather data is sent for viewing in a dedicated applet. News ripped from the RSS feeds of selected news outlets such as the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and WTOP is sent routinely but is not checked for consistency. For example, one feed routinely pushes a page daily that the entire feed is just broken. Pages from Wikipedia are sent but there is no pattern discernible yet as to how the pages are picked.

Currently there is a need to review how Wikipedia may make pages available in an automated fashion. It is an open question as to how these pages are being scraped. Is there a feed? Is there manual intervention at the point of uplink? The pages sent are not the exact web-based versions or PDF exports but rather the printer-friendly versions. For now investigation needs to occur relative to how Wikipedia releases articles to see if there is anything that correlates with what is being released.

There are still open questions that require review. The opacity of the content selection policies and procedures limit the platform's utility. That opacity prevents a user having a reasonable expectation of what exactly is coming through on the downlink.

Conclusion

A technical platform is only a means. With the computers involved at each end, older ideas for content distribution are reborn for access-impaired areas. Content remains key, though.


  1. Alyssa Danigelis, "'Outernet' Project Seeks Free Internet Access For Earth?: Discovery News," DNews, February 25, 2014, http://news.discovery.com/tech/gear-and-gadgets/outernet-project-seeks-free-internet-access-for-earth-140225.htm./\/\

  2. Reverse Engineering Outernet (Hamburg, Germany, 2016), https://media.ccc.de/v/33c3-8399-reverse_engineering_outernet./\/\


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