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A fast-growing wireless network called “Helium 5G” awards people with cryptocurrency for setting up internet hotspots to power the Internet of Things (IoT).
Supporters of the technology who say they’re making a lot of money call Helium 5G “the people’s network” because it creates wireless internet coverage without relying on the services of an internet provider.
But some critics — including W. Scott McCollough, lead electromagnetic radiation litigator for Children’s Health Defense (CHD) — say the technology has negative and far-reaching implications for people’s health and privacy.
“The Helium network may be billed as ‘free’ and beneficent,” McCollough said. “But nothing is truly free, and in this case there will be significant costs to health, privacy and liberty.”
More than half a million hotspots and growing exponentially
Helium 5G — or “Helium Cloud Ecosystem” — is a global network of wireless hotspots that use objects connected to the internet to send small amounts of data over long distances using radiofrequency (RF) signals.
These hotspots can reach 200 times farther than conventional Wi-Fi hotspots and share their owners’ bandwidth with nearby internet-connected devices — such as parking meters, air-quality sensors or smart kitchen appliances — thereby boosting the wireless coverage in an area, The New York Times reported.
Hotspot owners receive payment by “mining” a form of cryptocurrency called HNT that some experts predict will be the next cryptocurrency to “explode” in 2023, thanks to the exponential growth of Helium hotspots since 2020.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi, a software engineer who hosts a podcast about Helium, in June 2021 tweeted a graph showing fewer than 5,000 Helium hotspots in Jan. 2020 and more than 55,000 only 18 months later.
The exponential growth of the @helium network in one image. $HNT pic.twitter.com/M6DjpZLiDf
— Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi 🎈 (@rawrmaan) June 10, 2021
As of Feb. 22, that number had surpassed 500,000.
Alpine Capital Markets, a cryptocurrency and decentralized finance strategy and analysis firm, called the Helium Network “revolutionary” because it is helping speed up the rollout of 5G.
Telecom providers are struggling to identify the most efficient ways to meet the physical requirements that 5G creates within their existing centralized hardware paradigms, they said.
The Helium Network is “sidestepping” these hurdles as Helium users set up “individually owned hotspots” that are “humble but powerful 5G small cell radio nodes.”
Russell From, a former Verizon wireless engineer with expertise in 5G equipment, told Dezfuli-Arjomandi in a February 2022 interview he believed Helium was likely to create more “affordable” and “reliable” internet access.
Internet service providers’ biggest expenses are legal fees to secure licensure with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use specific radiofrequencies and physical infrastructure costs — but Helium does not incur these expenses, From said.
Helium uses LoRaWAN — a “cloud-based media access control layer technology” — that uses free, unlicensed radiofrequencies that can transmit data up to 10 miles away.
LoRaWAN is based on something called LoRa. Andrew Froehlich, president of West Gate Networks, said the difference between the two is that LoRa is a “modulation technique for specific wireless spectrum,” while LoRaWAN is an “open protocol that enables IoT devices to use LoRa for communication.”
Helium’s blockchain technology poses privacy, security risks
Helium uses blockchain technology, which is different than a typical database because it structures the data it collects into groups, known as blocks.
Once filled, each block closes and links with other blocks to form a blockchain, a “digital database or ledger that is distributed among the nodes of a peer-to-peer network,” according to Investopedia.
Although some say blockchains provide one of the most “secure and safe online transactions,” McCollough — a former Texas assistant attorney general and telecom and administrative law attorney — said they immutably store the data, thereby making it “potentially available for scrutiny by obtrusive government and private actors for their own benefit, completely outside any knowledge or control of those who have been surveilled.”
McCollough told The Defender:
“I am not anti-blockchain per se, but few recognize what it really means: The data is permanent, and stored in a public or private ledger somewhere. The person whose data is in issue has no ability to recall, edit or require deletion of it. They have no control.”
‘It will be what completely eliminates all privacy’
McCollough pointed out that missing from the public discussion around Helium is who benefits from the data transmitted between hotspots.
“Amidst all the hoorah about expanding connectivity and crypto fanboy public relations silliness with Helium and the somewhat similar Amazon-based Sidewalk, no one really talks about the true value and real nature of the business model: It is the data.”
Helium Network uses a “surveillance capitalism business model” that relies on “parasitic” channels that go back to central servers where the information is stored and then further distributed, McCollough said.
“The sale of this information is how they get their profit,” he said. “Not surprisingly, it is hard to pull out facts about where the data goes and what happens to it.”
Data mining — when data is sold to data brokers or others — can yield an “extraordinary amount of insight into people” that entities like governments and insurance companies can use to “guide and control individuals and society in commerce, politics and philosophy,” McCollough said.
Helium and similar wireless surveillance networks are “part of what will ultimately be a digital complete surveillance and population-control infrastructure, all interconnected in one way or another,” he added. “It will be what completely eliminates all privacy, self-determination and choice in every aspect of our lives.”
$1.2 billion company that launched Helium attracts big investors
As of March 30, 2022, Helium Inc. — the firm that created the Helium network — was valued at $1.2 billion after a $200 million series D startup funding round that featured “intriguing investors.”
Investors include GV (formerly Google Ventures), Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile is a Deutsche Telecom affiliate), Goodyear Ventures, the major tire manufacturer’s venture capital arm, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s venture capital firm Seven Seven Six, Liberty Global and NGP Capital.
The same month, Helium Inc. rebranded itself as Nova Labs as “part of an effort to help alleviate confusion between the Helium decentralized network/project, the blockchain behind it, the Helium token (HNT), and the core team that started it all,” Decrypt reported.
“[Helium] is actually the people’s network,” Nova Labs’s chief operating officer Frank Mong told Decrypt. “We really wanted to change our name to create a clear distinction that we don’t own the network. We are the creators and founders, but we open-sourced it.”
However, Nova Labs and the investors who back it likely continue to hold sway in the Helium Nework, as in November 2022, former Nova Labs chief product officer, Abhay Kumar, became the Helium Foundation’s CEO.
Nova Labs granted the Helium trademark to the Decentralized Wireless Alliance — the “community-selected governing body behind Helium’s network,” Decrypted said — and renamed it the “Helium Foundation.”
With a staff of more than 20 workers, the Helium Foundation provides grants to speed up the proliferation of the Helium network.
The Helium Foundation declined a request from The Defender to comment on where it receives its funding.
Understanding the IoT — and how Helium leverages it
The IoT refers to the rapidly growing network of objects connected to the internet, such as smart meters and smart cars — that collect and exchange data using embedded sensors.
The number of IoT-connected devices worldwide is likely to almost triple from 9.7 billion in 2020 to more than 29 billion in 2030.
An IoT network is considered by some as the necessary backbone for building “smart cities” in which everything that can be connected to the internet is.
Helium leverages the IoT by using it to expand wireless coverage, simultaneously creating more coverage for IoT devices.
Additionally, Helium allows people to purchase a 5G transmitter for the sole purpose of setting up a hotspot.
FreedomFi, a company acquired by Nova Labs in August 2022 to “accelerate the rollout of the Helium mobile network,” sells such devices to the public.
Scientists: 5G poses health risks, not tested for safety
Meanwhile, many scientists are advocating for a moratorium on 5G. As of Jan. 20, 430 scientists had signed the “Scientists’ 5G Appeal” which states that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields have been “proven to be harmful for humans and the environment.”
“Effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans,” they said.
“Damage goes well beyond the human race, as there is growing evidence of harmful effects to both plants and animals,” they added.
The “assumption” of safety is being used to justify the rollout of 5G, according to researchers with the Oceania Radiofrequency Scientific Advisory Association in Brisbane, Australia, and the Centre for Environment and Population Health at the School of Medicine and Dentistry at Griffith University in Brisbane, who said “the long-term effects of these signals on humans and the environment are unknown.
Cecelia Doucette, director of Massachusetts for Safe Technology, said the wireless technology Helium employs was “brought to market with no biological safety testing.”
Doucette said that in a Nov. 1, 2020, commissioned report for the state of New Hampshire, scientists, engineers and doctors made “15 recommendations to transition our communities away from toxic wireless technology and instead invest in the safer, sustainable solution of fiber-optics.”
Massachusetts for Safe Technology partners with New Hampshire for Safe Technology to provide two free public education sessions each month to “provide the facts and steps we can all take toward safe technology,” Doucette said.
Are there laws limiting the proliferation of Helium hotspots?
While Helium hotspots utilize LoRaWAN and therefore are legally able to use certain radiofrequencies without having to secure an individual FCC-issued license, there may be other legalities impacting the spread of Helium hotspots in terms of where the devices may be placed, said McCollough.
For example, setting up a Helium hotspot may, in some instances, be a violation of the person’s terms of service with their internet provider.
Some Helium hotspots may be legally protected by the FCC’s lenient 2021 amendment to its “Over-the-Air Reception Devices Rule,” depending on the placement and use of each device.
“There are many of the claimed use cases where the device/service will not be protected,” McCollough said.
The amendment allows for certain types of 5G cell towers and antennas to be installed on private property and homes — while preempting all state and zoning laws, homeowners’ association restrictions, civil rights and disability laws.
CHD in 2021 challenged the amendment, arguing that it violated constitutional rights and upended long-standing common law personal and property rights.
While 68 groups representing more than 1 million people filed an amicus brief in support of CHD’s lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals ultimately sided with the FCC.
‘I don’t want my washer calling anybody’
John C. Dvorak, a technology columnist for PCMag.com who co-hosts the “No Agenda Show” podcast, said that despite the manufactured hype about the IoT, most people do not want to live in a world with a pervasive wireless network that records and tracks people’s data for “selling you stuff.”
Dvorak referred to the IoT as a “surveillance state in disguise,” and told The Defender, “As we know from the minor amount we’ve had to endure, we don’t like it.”
Dvorak shared a hypothetical scenario, portrayed in the 2002 movie “Minority Report,” in which a person walks into a Walmart and instead of being greeted by a person who says “welcome,” the shopper is greeted by an electronic screen that greets the shopper by name and asks how his/her day is going — because it knows where the shopper has been just prior to walking into Walmart.
Perhaps the sign even tells the shopper to check out a personalized sale item on aisle three that aligns with the shopper’s previous purchasing history, he added.
“A number of people really think this is a great idea and they’re giddy about all these sorts of things,” Dvorak said. But most people get to a point when they reject this sort of IoT reality because they don’t want to be “tracked like dogs.”
Dvorak did not comment specifically on Helium, but he said he found the proliferation of an IoT network “alarming.”
He called it “laughable” that an IoT refrigerator would sense when its owner is low on milk and automatically order more.
Dvorak said his favorite laughable IoT scenario involves an appliance repairperson coming to a person’s home saying they received a call that the washing machine was broken.
The homeowner tells the repairperson that the homeowner did not call for service. The repairperson responds, “I know — but your washer called.”
Dvorak said, “I don’t want my washer calling anybody.”