Germany plans to take over wi-fi in emergencies

A team of German wireless researchers has worked out a way to improve the communications abilities of the emergency services by taking over wi-fi connections in the region.

The proposal, worked out by a  team led by PhD student Kamill Panitzek of Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany, requires the creation of an “emergency switch” that lets government employees turn off the security mechanisms in the wireless routers people have set up in their own homes.

This means that first responders can use all the routers within range to enhance the capabilities of the mesh networks that allow them to communicate with each other.

The proposal, laid out in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Mobile Network Design and Innovation is getting some attention, mostly because of a press release with the headline “Your wireless router could save lives in an emergency”.

The paper acknowledges privacy and security concerns, but it does not tackle how this could be avoided. It just says that the network should be isolated from the citizen’s home network to protect people’s privacy.

Panitzek claims that this could be easily accomplished as it is already possible to install a home network and a guest network in parallel to grant internet access to visitors.

It could be set up by sending firmware updates sent to routers, and won’t require new hardware.

The wireless mesh network would be on top of the privately owned routers, acting as a “backbone in case of a disaster”. It could also include mobile phone networks.

Security expert Bruce Schneier told Ars Technica that it was similar to the so-called internet kill switch, which would let the government shut down the web in case of a major cyber attack.

He said that once you build such a system, you have to build the security to ensure that only the right people use it. That is not so easy and it’s far more secure not to have those capabilities.