Meet My Government Surveillance Box


I’ve brought a government-funded gadget into my house and connected it to my home network. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m mostly kidding. What I do have, plugged in between my Hawaiian Telcom DSL router and my Airport Extreme base station, is a SamKnows “Whitebox,” provided by the Hawaii state DCCA’s “Measuring Broadband Hawaii” project (part of the FCC’s Measuring Broadband America). I presume they’re calling it a “white box” because it doesn’t sound as scary as a “black box,” but I was definitely amused to discover the thing is black, anyway.

As I wrote last month, this is just the latest phase in a large-scale effort to determine just how good (or bad) internet access is for American citizens. While there have been many massive surveys in which internet users have manually reported their internet speeds, the SamKnows system provides for much more accurate sampling.

So now my black WhiteBox quietly and randomly pings away, sending reports back to home base. Fortunately, I’m also given access to an online dashboard where I can see various stats and charts about my DSL connection’s performance: sustained and burst downstream speed, sustaned and burst upstream speed, DNS response times, latency, packet loss, website load times, failed web requests, and jitter. I had to look that up.


Additionally, there are “report cards,” issued monthly, summarizing each of the measured criteria (though they don’t provide, as far as I can see, a basic grade like “A,” “B,” or “F.”

I only realized today that there’s also a SamKnows app, so I can see all this stuff on my iPhone (or an Android smartphone).

My box hasn’t even been online a month, but I’m already enjoying having access to these performance metrics, and now I’m more satisfied with my DSL internet service. Downstream speed is stable around the clock, compared to the nightmare of living with the cable company’s service, something I’ve suspected but could never really know until now. Upstream is another matter, but frankly, no provider seems to prioritize outgoing traffic. I just let my video uploads run overnight, and most are done by morning.

Of course, the skeptic in me will always wonder just how much information the government is collecting, and just what this box is looking at. I am heartened by the front-page assurance from the FCC:

The Measuring Broadband America program is built on principles of openness and transparency. The FCC has made available to stakeholders and the general public the open source software used on both its fixed and mobile applications, the data collected, and detailed information regarding the FCC’s technical methodology for analyzing the collected data.

Still, I’ve started using PGP/GPG to encrypt email and files again. You never know.

Want to get a government surveillance box of your very own? Apply here.

Updated to add link to the state program.

1 Response

  1. Mike Purvis says:

    Very interesting, thanks for the heads up. Maybe if I get one, we can better measure how poor Big Island speeds are, and use that as ammunition in the future.

    By the way, it’s possible to set up a separate router that’s purely a VPN. The trick is to use a demilitarized zone (DMZ) setting in your first router.

    If you’re truly concerned about sending certain traffic (like logging onto bank accounts, sensitive work emails) you can have two routers – connected – one that is regular traffic and one that’s in a DMZ and constantly connected to a VPN. I finally figured out how to do this two days ago.

    Then you can switch wireless SSIDs and be on a secure VPN, and switch back to the regular one (attached to WhiteBox) when the family is watching Netflix or whatever.


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