New York: The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems in countries ruled by repressive regimes so that dissidents can use them to get around government censorship, a media report said on Sunday.
Financed with a USD two million State Department grant, the effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries and undermine repressive governments that seek to silence dissidents by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks, The New York Times reported.
Under the plan, a group of young entrepreneurs have developed a deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”
The suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet, the report said.
The American effort, revealed in dozens of interviews, planning documents and classified diplomatic cables, ranges in scale, cost and sophistication, the Times said.
Some projects involve technology that the United States is developing; others pull together tools that have already been created by hackers in a so-called liberation-technology movement sweeping the globe.
The new initiatives have found a champion in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has made Internet freedom into a signature cause.
“We see more and more people around the globe using the Internet, mobile phones and other technologies to make their voices heard as they protest against injustice and seek to realize their aspirations,” Clinton said in response to a query on the topic.
“There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” she said. “So we’re focused on helping them do that, on helping them talk to each other, to their communities, to their governments and to the world.”
By the end of 2011, the State Department will have spent some USD 70 million on circumvention efforts and related technologies, according to department figures.
The State Department is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya, the report quoted the participants in the projects as saying.
In one of the most ambitious efforts, United States officials say, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least USD 50 million to create an independent cellphone network in Afghanistan using towers on protected military bases inside the war-torn country. It is intended to offset the Taliban’s ability to shut down the official Afghan services, seemingly at will.
The effort has picked up momentum since the government of President Hosni Mubarak shut down the Egyptian Internet in the last days of his rule. In recent days, the Syrian government also temporarily disabled much of that country’s Internet, which had helped protesters mobilise, the report said.
The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means.
More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught, the report said.
But the State Department has carefully framed its support as promoting free speech and human rights for their own sake, not as a policy aimed at destabilising autocratic governments, the Times said.
The suitcase project will rely on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can transform devices like cellphones or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralised hub. In other words, a voice, picture or e-mail message could hop directly between the modified wireless devices each one acting as a mini cell “tower” and phone and bypass the official network.
The suitcase would include small wireless antennas, which could increase the area of coverage; a laptop to administer the system; thumb drives and CDs to spread the software to more devices and encrypt the communications; and other components like Ethernet cables.