April 22, 2013

Idea: A Router Emergency Switch

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, I saw a lot of tweets calling for businesses in the area to open up their Wi-Fi so people can contact their loved ones during a period where cell phone networks were so congested that calls and texts couldn’t go through. I wondered whether a business owner — or whatever employee happens to be around that day — would even know how to open their Wi-Fi in a crisis.

So what if business-class routers included a Router Emergency Switch? It could be implemented either as a big red physical button on the router itself, or an easy-to-find software trigger. In a crisis, it’s an easy way to open your network.

I know what you’re thinking: if it’s that easy to open the router, isn’t there potential for abuse? Couldn’t it be triggered in non-emergency settings? Not if it’s done right. When you set up your router for the first time, you would also set up the Emergency settings. Heres an example of what a typical setup might do when the Emergency Switch is pulled:

1) Create a new Wi-Fi Guest Network so your own network is still secure.

2) Change the Wi-Fi Guest Network name to “USE THIS NETWORK DURING EMERGENCY” or something similar so people know it’s available.

3) Automatically bring people who access that network to a portal page with links to local and national news websites, local and national emergency websites, popular webmail sites, and maybe some first aid tips or other similar information.

4) Optionally open access to the entire internet, or just to specific sites to use during an emergency, depending on how trusting/paranoid the business owner is.

5) E-mail the business owner to alert him or her that the emergency switch has been activated.

6) Automatically turn off the guest network after a preset time period (perhaps a week?) in case the business owner forgets.

It seems like there’s only a very slim chance you’d ever need to use this. The odds of your business being within Wi-Fi signal’s reach of a catastrophe seem pretty low. So maybe this is the sort of thing that doesn’t have enough payoff to make the trouble worthwhile. But in that rare instance, it could end up being useful.

Comments

In the past there have been proposals to mandate such a thing but rather than having it be a physical switch have it be a remote switch under the control of first responders.

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/08/would-you-give-the-government-remote-control-over-your-router/

It’s software only and thus cheaper, but has security and surveillance implications. I like your physical switch better.

I love that idea! Fantastic.

I love this idea. Don’t mandate it, though, use taxpayer money to subsidize it so the routers are a little cheaper than their non-emergency counterparts.

And by all means leave it under the control of the businesses. Government controlled access to the internet is NOT a good idea.

On the question of likelihood, I think you’re thinking too small. Sure, events of the type that we had in Boston a week ago happening outside your store are negligible. But what about other events — superstorms, power outages (and you have generators), major accidents, that sort of thing — in which emergency communication would be helpful? The sorts of things a RACES network would be activated for?

And block port 25 so spammers can’t use it.

Or just make it easy to have an open guest network with a small bandwidth limit and leave it open all the time.