Last updated: May 10, 2020
In some cases, it’s more efficient to move digital data on physical media through physical space than it is to move that same information over a traditional internet or local network. The term is informal and loosely defined, but these networks are sometimes called “sneakernets.”
There are many reasons to employ a sneakernet, but perhaps the most significant is convenience: it is simpler to pass a USB stick or a handful of SD cards to a colleague or classmate than it is to set up a secure file transfer between two or more machines. But they can also be used because of bandwidth restrictions, security concerns, limited network infrastructure, or to avoid surveillance of a network.
Fiber optic internet offers a speedy 1Gbps connection and 5G is promising to deliver up to 2Gbps. In the US, our internet infrastructure continues to speed up and expand. At the same time though, the data we send seems to be getting bigger too. In some cases, it’s still not possible—or not convenient—to move significant amounts of data over the internet.
For example, if the speed of a network connection between two servers is 10 Mbps, only 1 terabyte could be transmitted over 24 hours. Local cinemas often run their digital projectors using files from harddrives, shipped around the web of theaters when necessary. Google and Amazon routinely use shipping serves for digital media internally. The Hubble Space Telescope captures images that take up 120 terabytes of storage. It makes a lot more sense to move data like that through FedEx, in a sneakernet. In fact, while the response time on the Internet is significantly faster, the potential bandwidth of physical media is unlikely to ever be surpassed by traditional digital networks.
Transition to the Internet
In Cuba, where Internet access is limited and expensive, some people with internet connections contribute to a network for distributing media called El Paquete Semenal. Then, the DVDs and USB sticks they burn full of local and international media are moved on foot and by standard delivery routes.
This is probably one of the largest and most comprehensive sneakernets or alternative internets around.
Cost of the Internet
A dataset released by cable.co.uk studied 6,313 data plans across 230 countries. India is on the top of the list with the cheapest dataplan that offers 1 GB of data for an average of $0.09 while Israel is second on the list with $0.11. The most expensive data plan on the list is Saint Helena with an average of $52.50 for a GB.
The dataset has an interesting insight on the most expensive countries out there — namely that they are all islands [São Tomé and Príncipe ($28.26), Bermuda ($28.75), Nauru ($30.47), Falkland Islands ($40.41) and Saint Helena ($52.50)]. These islands lack robust fibre networks and rely on more expensive solutions such as Satellite uplinks, the cost of which is passed onto the consumer. Even when Islands are connected to the fibre backbone, they often find themselves at the mercy of a precarious infrastructure that lacks redundancy. For instance, the Kingdom of Tonga was left without internet in January 2019 when an oil tanker dragged an anchor across the seabed and snapped a fiber optic submarine cable. The connection was only restored after 13 days.
The dataset however paints a somewhat incomplete picture of the cost of access, since it measures access by absolute USD value rather than the local cost of living. The Internet Health report uses price per 1GB of mobile plan as a percentage of monthly GNI per capita, which may be a better way to measure cost of access since countries have a lot of variance in per capita incomes and costs of living.
Anti-Surveillance & Virtual Space
What security does the sneakernet provide that traditional networks don’t? If it truly is disconnected from the internet during its journey, the data is unlikely to be seen by an Internet Service Provider or by a third party. In real space, hiding the physical media among other media makes detecting it much more difficult. It’s in an unfamiliar context, and whatever data is coming through can be difficult to distinguish from some other small item in a pocket or a briefcase. In a way, transmission via sneakernet is a kind of steganography.
This realization points to a kind of sneakernet-adjacent transmission of data: moving data—still through the internet, but hidden inside of other data. One example, the Uncensored Library, is a Minecraft map with banned journalism embedded inside it. It doesn’t resemble printed media from the outside, and the way it looks as a packet is more or less indistinguishable from any other Minecraft map. It is made up of the same virtual material.
One quirk here is that the hidden data is accessed by treating the masking data as a physical space. In this way, the virtual space with hidden text strongly resembles the real space with hidden media.
Dropgangs and darknet markets
Darknet markets rely on dropgangs to complete transactions anonymously.
Voluntarylabs.net is a site run by digital activists that publish open source projects which promote “voluntary interactions”. “We don’t like the possibility of a world where every transaction you make over your entire lifetime will be tracked,” Steve Dekorte, the lead developer on the project told Bitcoin news site, Coindesk. “We feel this is a basic human rights issue.” One of Voluntarylab’s projects is BitMarket, which allows users to sell anything.
Bitmarket is a marketplace where goods are advertised and transactions are arranged privately between users. In addition to the buyer’s funds, a seller also puts up a deposit to be held in bitcoin escrow until both parties are satisfied with the transaction. Both buyer and seller are essentially invested in the transaction. The goods are dropped at a mutually agreed upon location, often utilizing a dropgang.
The Internet is becoming centralized and privacy is difficult to maintain. The stated goal of the Bitmarket project is to push back by providing an open, peer-to-peer, decentralized two-party escrow system for online transactions. While the intent and architecture of these types of online transaction platforms are not inherently criminal, they do tend to attract merchants and buyers of illicit materials who (for obvious reasons) cannot conduct commerce on ‘clearnet’ platforms. This is a bit of a Catch-22; one could argue that the overall health and wellness of the internet would be increased if it were a diverse ecosphere where users could take advantage of various platforms including decentralized peer networks. But the proliferation of the internet as we know it, basically owned and run by a few gigantic companies who are able to collect and sell data at will, is dependent on its centralization and its use of user-tracking.
The “sneakernet” is a kind of network, but it’s also a way to think about the movement of data in the real world. Are supply chains sneakernets? What would it mean to install cable to support a sneakernet? What kinds of handshakes keep sneakernets running? Could you build a sneakernet botnet?
Global internet infrastructure continues to develop. In some places, the sneakernet will be obviated. But in other cases, the need to move larger data will create the need for a sneakernet. It’s unlikely that the concept will disappear in the near future.