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US funds secret 'internet in a suitcase' for dissidents

James Glanz and John Markoff (SMH) | June 13, 2011
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.

Yahyanejad said he and his research colleagues were also slated to receive State Department financing for a project that would modify Bluetooth so that a file containing, say, a video of a protester being beaten, could automatically jump from phone to phone within a "trusted network" of citizens. The system would be more limited than the suitcase but would only require the software modification on ordinary phones.

By the end of 2011, the State Department will have spent some $US70 million on circumvention efforts and related technologies, according to department figures.

Clinton has made internet freedom into a signature cause. 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.

That distinction is difficult to maintain, said Clay Shirky, an assistant professor at New York University who studies the internet and social media.

"You can't say, 'All we want is for people to speak their minds, not bring down autocratic regimes' - they're the same thing," Shirky said.

He added that the United States could expose itself to charges of hypocrisy if the State Department maintained its support, tacit or otherwise, for autocratic governments running countries such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain while deploying technology that was likely to undermine them.

Shadow mobile phone system

In February 2009, Richard Holbrooke and Lieutenant General John Allen were taking a helicopter tour over southern Afghanistan and getting a panoramic view of the mobile phone towers dotting the remote countryside, according to two officials on the flight.

By then, millions of Afghans were using mobile phones, compared with a few thousand after the 2001 invasion. Towers built by private companies had sprung up across the country.

The United States had promoted the network as a way to cultivate goodwill and encourage local businesses in a country that in other ways looked as if it had not changed much in centuries.

There was just one problem, Allen told Holbrooke, who only weeks before had been appointed special envoy to the region. With a combination of threats to phone company officials and attacks on the towers, the Taliban was able to shut down the main network in the countryside virtually at will. Local residents report that the networks are often out from 6pm until 6am, presumably to enable the Taliban to carry out operations without being reported to security forces.

The Pentagon and State Department were soon collaborating on the project to build a "shadow" mobile phone system in a country where repressive forces exert control over the official network.

 

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