U.S. Funding Secret Internet Access for Dissidents Abroad

Projects range from secret cellphone networks to 'Internet in a Suitcase'

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A recurring event in the Arab Spring was the shutting down of the internet by incumbent regimes, acts which were met with such outrage by the global community that they in part led the U.N. to declare internet access a basic human right. The Obama administration is now leading an effort to create a “shadow” internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use in the event that their government shuts down web access, as Hosni Mubarak's regime did in Egypt, and President Bashar al-Assad recently did in Syria. The New York Times describes the State Department's efforts, which vary from developing James Bond-worthy high-tech gadgets to uncovering cell phones hidden by borders. Here are some of the ways the U.S. is looking to safeguard internet access across the world.

Internet in a Suitcase. A $2 million State Department grant is being used to develop a prototype "Internet in a suitcase," that the Times notes is like something "out of a spy novel." The suitcase project will rely on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can connect devices like cellphones or computers, creating a web without a centralized hub. Thus, each innocuous-looking suitcase acts as a mini-tower that can bypass the official network. “We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil,” said Sascha Meinrath, who is leading the “Internet in a suitcase” project.

Independent cellphone networks. This effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, like Iran, Syria, and Libya. In Afghanistan, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least $50 million creating a network outside of the control of the Taliban, which could shut down Afghan services at will, according to the Times. Details of the network are scarce, but military and civilian officials said it relied in part on cell towers placed on protected American bases.

Bluetooth beaming. Mehdi Yahyanejad, an Iranian expatriate and technology developer, said that in more closed societies, Bluetooth is used to discreetly beam information, or even video, directly from one cellphone to another. He said he and his research colleagues are slated to receive State Department financing for a project that would modify Bluetooth so that a file could automatically jump from phone to phone within a “trusted network” of citizens.

Buried cell phones. American diplomats have even met with a North Korean defector who explained that communication across the border was possible from burying Chinese cellphones in the hills near the border with North Korea, where they could be dug up and used to make secret calls.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called these circumvention technologies “a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports.” However, there is the concern that the State Department's actions will be viewed not just as promoting free speech and protecting human rights, but as targeting foreign governments. Clay Shirky told the Times that the U.S. could particularly expose itself to charges of hypocrisy if the State Department outwardly supported regimes like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, while at the same time building tools that would likely be used to destabilize them.

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