Egyptian anti-government bloggers work on their laptops from Cairo's Tahrir square in February.

Egyptian anti-government bloggers work on their laptops from Cairo's Tahrir square in February. Photo: AFP

The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy "shadow" internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

The effort includes secretive projects to create independent mobile phone networks inside other countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype "internet in a suitcase".

Financed with a $US2 million State Department grant, 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 US effort, revealed in dozens of interviews, planning documents and classified diplomatic cables obtained by The New York Times, ranges in scale, cost and sophistication.

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 State Department, for example, is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries such as Iran, Syria and Libya, according to participants in the projects.

In one of the most ambitious efforts, US officials say, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least $US50 million to create an independent mobile phone network in Afghanistan using towers on protected military bases inside the 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 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 the Voice of America and other means.

More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places such as China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned internet without getting caught.

 

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