The following is transcript from the Echoes From the Black Segment on the subject.
When humanity’s home in the ‘Verse was established, the technicians immediately began working on an interplanetary communications network: If the central planets are the beating heart of the system, then the Cortex is its nervous system. It serves a very vital part in the Firefly verse as a result.
The brain of this ever-changing data-stream is located above the industrial mecha of Beaumonde, on the cortex moon. From there strung out from the Core to the rim is the Cortex -— a system-wide information network that can be accessed on ships or groundside with a terminal or dedicated sourcebox. News, communication, law enforcement bulletins, entertainment, advertisement and online shopping are all available; Cable meets the internet in the twenty fifth century. Nodes have been placed around every planet—even newly terraformed outer worlds—with communications lines along most every trade route and shipping lane, allowing for /mostly/ unrestricted flow of information back and forth. Only those who deliberately go out of their way to avoid bein’ noticed (flyin’ under the Alliance radar, for instance) will find themselves cut off from their fellow folk. The Cortex can be accessed by anyone with the right equipment, which means to say anyone with the cash to afford an access terminal, or—for something even more shiny—a handheld access device. Once on the Cortex, a ‘Verse full of talk, news, information, and entertainment is waiting to be had.
Most Cortex-based communication comes in the forms of “waves”, which can be as simple as text messages, but are more often viewed on flat-screen video. And for those with the right equipment, three-dimensional holographic imaging is possible, though such luxury equipment is very expensive to aquire. Most waves are delayed messages, though if two parties are close enough, the communication can be live and direct. While a source-trace can locate the origin node for each end of the signal, the trace cannot specifically track where a particular wave came from in the first place, unless of course there are obvious markers... if you're standing right in front of the parliamentary building on Londinium in your wave, there's a very good chance that the wave came from that location, right?
Also, some waves have ident markers that indicate where they are from - official waves, such as those from commerce or public service, for example.
The Alliance government works to control content on the Cortex, and they are adept at doing so for the most important and sensitive material. But the sheer volume of information means that if some file or document is broadwaved from a location with the right equipment, it will reach every data node strung throughout the system and can be accessed by anyone ready to receive.
One important thing to remember about Cortex access points is that every screen serves also as camera and microphone. Watch your favorite episode of Razor Frog or As the Verse turns and someone on the other end could be watching you pick your teeth. Privately owned devices are harder to pull feeds from, though someone with the right know-how can still do it. Public terminals are supposedly private, but it’s widely known that someone could be watching you at just about any time. However, since there are so damn many screens in the ‘Verse, no one could watch every one all the time.
Laws against electronic crimes are heavily enforced and law breakers punished, but the potential rich rewards of the bits and bytes still encourage hackers and the like to keep on tryin’ their luck. Black market tech helps the nefarious stay one step ahead of the Feds.
On Serenity Mush it is understood that everyone can access the cortex without a specific skill, as ingrained as walking, talking and breathing, though perhaps not chewing gum at the same time! It is when you want a bit more that, the skills become important. The main skills used are computer use, computer programming, and engineer: computers. The higher your skill level the better you will be at accessing and manipulating the cortex. Bare in mind, that to hack deeply into the waves, you will have to have access to the technical equipment to do such a thing - remember the massive system that Mister Universe had, in the Movie? It's not something you can just carry around in a backpack! Searching is much easier; all you need is an access terminal and the know-how.
Searching of Public Databases is the simplest search of all, this is the simple searching of public records that are generally available. It can be done either with a dedicated search using Computer use with an easy to average difficulty, or a search program using Computer Programming with an easy to average difficulty. The dedicated search is faster, but the search program lets you do other tasks while it works in the background. Hiding your tracks: If you don't want someone to follow the trail of searches and downloads, you can hide your tracks by using one of two methods. You can use a decoy with a task roll of computer use or an actual mod to your terminal that spoofs fake IPs as it goes which would use a taskroll of computer engineering. In either case, the searcher and the searchee roll off using the appropriate skill ( computer use for searchers, always. Security systems for searchees. ). Whoever gets a higher total, either defeats the search or finds out where the info went.
Searching Private Databases relates to non-military private agencies -- Companies, hacker sites, agencies, law enforcement and such. In order to search these databases, you must get access first. If you can gain physical access via RP, then you're in the system without a taskroll. If you can get someone to "lend" you a valid username and password, you are also in without dice. However, if you have to hack it, you have to taskroll computer use and security systems against a target number that accurately reflects how protected the system is. Once you're inside, you can either search or drop a search program, just like public databases but generally higher difficulties. The issue with private databases is they are monitored. So every 1-5 actions you undertake in the database searches, implanting files, etc. causes a roll to see if you get noticed. This is done just like hiding your tracks, above, except if you get noticed, you get dumped from the system... Unless the hacked party wants to send a strike team to get you, and feels that's viable, in which case they let you keep playing around but watch closely; remember that bit about each terminal being potentially two-way?
Military bases are higher difficulties than private databases. Every single action triggers a monitoring Taskroll of a high difficulty. It is IMPOSSIBLE to hack into the alliance mainframe. Don't ask, don't try it. You'll get a resounding "No".
Once you're inside the taskrolls to Search for a file would be Gather Information. Downloading is automatic and doesn't require any kind of check. To alter an existing file would take Computer programming, the difficulty of which would be determined by the storyteller. To implant a new file would be a taskroll using your Computer use against the system's security rating if it has one or again, at a difficulty determined by the story teller. If a frame program is dropped into a database to do tasks for you, it rolls to get noticed just as you would if you were there in the system.
If your skill level is high enough, no official docket of you exists anywhere. Any Alliance, Fed, Interpol agent, or bounty hunter trying to look you up finds nothing. In most situations such as applying for a liquor permit, making a purchase on credit, the officials will pass it off as a computer error, since everyone is on file somewhere. There could be disadvantages to this: credit could be denied or worse, you might have trouble checking into the emergency ward of an Alliance-run hospital. And if the Alliance finally arrests you on serious charges, it could mean a whole heap of trouble, for officially you don’t exist. One thing you will never be able to purchase if you are such a ghost in the machine, is a weapons license. No big deal right? Unless of course, you get caught with an illegal weapon, no license to carry it and no information available about you. That, as they say, is a recipe for disaster and a nice, long stay in the floating prison Apophis that hovers above Osiris.
On the mush itself, some static cortex information is available, over the dynamic 'situational roleplay' interaction -- Some of the actual news and such are handled with a Bulletin Board and it dispenses news that anyone would have access to /usually/ without taskrolls. Some posts do require a bit of digging work and usually the poster will inform in an out of character disclaimer, what the taskroll difficulty would be. There is also a news board, a jobs board, and a rumors board. These posts would also be on the cortex someplace. Like today just about everything from the verse ends up there in one form or another.
The amount of use the cortex in roleplay varies from just accessing the everyday and the mundane, to hacking into the alliance feeds A'la Mister U.
Propaganda and multi-user dissemination of data and misinformation are wonderful plot hooks.
The verse is filled with feeds and waves just waiting for someone to access them.
The truth is out there.
You can’t stop the signal.