How Rebels Hacked and Rewired the Libyan Cell Phone Network

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The Wall Street Journal delivers an engrossing account of how Libyan rebels worked with Arab governments to hack the Libyan regime's cell phone infrastructure. In desperate need of communications, a telecom executive in Abu Dhabi sketched a plan on a napkin and set about getting the equipment and funding to make it work. The network went into operation at the beginning of this month. It's called "Free Libyana."

The piece is worth reading in full, but there are several fascinating snippets worth noting about how the rebels in Benghazi have dealt with the international community in this technological feat.

  • The U.A.E and Qatar provided millions of dollars in equipment. "In a sign of deepening ties between Arab governments and the Benghazi-based administration, the U.A.E. and Qatar provided diplomatic support and helped buy the several million dollars of telecommunications equipment needed in Benghazi, according to members of the Libyan transitional authority and people familiar with the situation."
  • Chinese telecom maker Huawei wouldn't sell equipment to the rebels. "The Chinese company Huawei Technologies Ltd., one of the original contractors for Libyana's cellular network backbone, refused to sell equipment for the rebel project, causing Mr. Abushagur and his engineer buddies to scramble to find a hybrid technical solution to match other companies' hardware with the existing Libyan network."
  • The rebels satellite network is running through the Emirates' telecom provider, Etisalat. "The team also captured the Tripoli-based database of phone numbers, giving them information necessary to patch existing Libyana customers and phone numbers into their new system--which they dubbed 'Free Libyana'" The last piece of the puzzle was securing a satellite feed through which the Free Libyana calls could be routed--a solution provided by Etisalat, according to Benghazi officials."
  • The new network is free for now. "An added bonus of the new network: It is free for domestic calls, at least until Free Libyana gets a billing system up and running."
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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