How to Hack Qaddafi's Cellphone Network

Fed up using flags and hand signals, Libyan rebels hacked the regime's cell phone network

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The Libyan rebels are back on the grid thanks to a telecom executive from Alabama, an airplane napkin and several million dollars worth of equipment. Ousama Abushagur, a Libyan-American living in Abu Dhabi, teamed up with two childhood friends and built a pirate cell phone network to replace the one that Qaddafi shut down after violence broke out in February. Up to the hackers' first phone call on April 2, the rebels had been communicating on the battle field using flag signals with pretty basic capabilities. "Yellow meant retreat, green meant advance," rebel commander Gen. Ahmed al-Ghatrani told the Wall Street Journal.

The feat sounds like something out of a George Clooney movie. And perhaps most the impressive detail: Qaddafi's spokesperson had no idea it existed until the Journal tried to interview him about it. After sketching out the idea on a napkin—just like Twitter's founders did!—the rebels pulled it off in five easy steps:

  • Enlist the support of wealthy neighbors like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to buy the very expensive machinery needed to build a wireless telecommunications network.
  • Transport the equipment along with engineers and bodyguards through Egypt to the Libyan border. Try not to get caught.
  • Steal a bunch of phone numbers from Libyan General Telecommunications Agency, the existing network run by Qaddafi's son.
  • Plug the new equipment into Qaddafi's network, route it around Tripoli.
  • Hit up the U.A.E. for a satellite feed, take the new "Free Libyana" network online and start thinking about pricing plans.

This isn't the first time an American emigrant greased the wheels of a revolution in the Middle East this year. Wael Ghonim, the senior Google executive captured and later freed by Mubarak's regime in Egypt, earned credit for helping to mastermind the social media effort that led to the revolution in Tahrir Square. Ghonim allegedly helped stoke the youth's outrage on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the January 27 day of rage and then praised the protesters on Twitter as soon as he was released from custody in February.

Does this development shed any more light on the never-ending debate over the impact of information technology on political revolutions? The Atlantic's Peter Osnos quoted a debate in print between social media guru Clay Shirky and anti-social media guru Malcolm Gladwell over the role of tools like Twitter and Faceboook in a revolution. According a column Shirky penned for Foreign Affairs:

Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction, underline the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only reacting to citizens' ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed.

Gladwell responded in his own Foreign Affairs column:

The lesson here is that just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean that they matter; or, to put it another way, in order for an innovation to make a real difference, it has to solve a problem that was actually a problem in the first place.

Osnos basically conceded the fact that indeed social media helped little in Libya, where a strongman dictator shut down communications and attacked the protesters with brute force. It didn't help that Qaddafi ran a pretty ramshackle propaganda machine that disallowed reports from rebels to reach the press easily.

Now the tables may have turned. The British were quick to offer up more communications equipment in the days after the network went live and so the rebels' problem of lacking equipment is over. However, since the new rebel network only offers free calls domestically, Twitter via text message is now one of the few ways the rebels can broadcast, without filter, what's happening to everyone outside of Libya.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.