This essay originally appeared in Internet Monitor 2013: Reflections on the Digital World, published by the Internet Monitor project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license and has been lightly edited to align with Slate’s style guide.
On June 30, 2013, prompted by revelations of surveillance programs in the United States and United Kingdom, former Union of International Associations Assistant Secretary-General Anthony Judge published a detailed proposal titled “Circumventing Invasive Internet Surveillance With Carrier Pigeons.” In it, Judge discusses the proven competence of carrier pigeons for delivering messages, their non-military and military messaging capacity, and Chinese experiments to create pigeon cyborgs. Judge acknowledges that pigeon networks have their own vulnerability (such as disease, hawks, or being lured off course by sexy decoys), but argues that others have proven pigeons are effective at transmitting digital data.
Judge’s proposal has its roots in a series of earlier Request for Comments to the Internet Engineering Task Force, the ad hoc body charged with developing and promoting Internet standards. On April Fools’ Day in 1990, David Waitzman submitted an RFC on the idea of using carrier pigeons or other birds for the transmission of electronic data. Waitzman called his new communication standard “Internet Protocol over Avian Carriers” (IPoAC). Nine years later, Waitzman issued a second RFC, this one suggesting improvements to his original protocol. On April 1, 2011, Brian Carpenter and Robert Hinden issued their own RFC detailing how to use IPoAC with the latest revisions to the Internet Protocol IPv6.
Though all three RFCs were issued as April Fools’ Day jokes, in 2004, the IPoAC idea encouraged the Bergen Linux group to send nine pigeons, each carrying a single “ping,” three miles. (They only received four “responses,” meaning only four of the birds made it.) A few years later, an IT company in South Africa raced pigeons carrying data cards against the transfer speeds of their local Internet service providers and easily won. A similar test by a British ISP in 2010 sent a pigeon carrying a microSD card loaded with a five-minute video 75 miles in 90 minutes, beating the time it took to upload the same video to YouTube via a rural farm’s Internet connection.
Before the advent of the global Internet and fast data-transfer speeds, it was common to physically carry information between storage devices. “Sneakernets,” or the networks of people walking around in sneakers carrying digital data, haven’t gone away. After the 2011 raid of Osama Bin Laden’s compound, it was discovered that he had been evading U.S. intelligence organizations by using a courier to send drafts of emails stored on USB drives from a nearby Internet cafe. In the Kingdom of Bhutan, an offline network project distributes digital educational resources, such as Khan Academy videos and archived Wikipedia articles, to hundreds of schools with no or slow Internet access. USB drives have also been used to evade Internet restrictions in North Korea and Cuba.
As governments and corporations increasingly block or monitor Internet communications, and as data production continues to outpace bandwidth speed increases, sneakernets are helping move data around. Pigeon-nets may not be too far behind.