The United States is developing and deploying covert communications systems intended to be used by dissidents in countries Washington deems have repressive governments, according to the U.S. State Department.
The projects are not clandestine, State Department spokesperson Harry Edwards told TechNewsWorld. However, it’s up to grant recipients to determine whether and how to publicize their activities, he added.
This particular program received widespread attention recently due to a report in The New York Times.
Washington’s efforts to fight communications censorship abroad include secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks in foreign countries, as well as work to construct a prototype “Internet in a suitcase” — essentially a powerful, portable WiFi hotspot.
“The State Department is doing innovative, cutting-edge work in the area of Internet freedom, including funding the development of ‘Internet in a suitcase,'” Edwards said.
“Our approach is ‘Techies Without Borders,'” Edwards stated. “It is about empowering individuals to exercise their universal human rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association, online as well as in the physical world,” he added.
“It’s very possible to do this,” Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, told TechNewsWorld. “All you have to do is create an open network using several hundred WiFi or cellular hotspots that have open access.”
This move builds upon the use by dissidents in several Middle Eastern countries of modern communications technologies such as Twitter and Facebook, Christina Greer, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University, told TechNewsWorld.
However, dissidents who use these secret networks may face danger from their Western allies in the long run, she warned.
“If the dissidents do things the United States or its allies agree with, that’s great,” Greer remarked. “However, if they ever say something that isn’t part of a larger narrative that certain individuals want out there, they may get into trouble.”
The State Department has funded more than US$50 million in Internet freedom projects since 2008, Edwards said. IT will support an additional $20 million in programs before the end of 2011.
Shadow Men on a Shadowy Planet
The prototype “Internet in a suitcase” could, for example, be secreted across the border of a country and set up quickly to enable wireless communication over a wide area with connections to the global Internet.
The State Department is also reportedly financing the creation of stealth wireless networks in countries such as Iran, Syria and Libya.
In Afghanistan, the State Department and the Pentagon have created an independent cellphone network using towers on protected military bases inside the country to combat the Taliban’s shutdown of official communications services.
Whether or not civilian dissidents will be granted access to that network has yet to be determined, as hackers or government agents posing as dissidents could easily infiltrate and bring it down if access was opened up.
Possible Technologies for Use
The “Internet in a suitcase” project will essentially be a very powerful WiFi hotspot, In-Stat’s McGregor said.
“All you do is put a powerful cellular transmitter in a suitcase running off power or off a battery,” McGregor said.”
Its range will be much greater than they typical hotspot found in the United States, where “a lot of the range capability is dictated by government entities like the Federal Communications Commission because it wants to minimize interference,” McGregor explained.
“If you don’t care about interference, you can crank the hell out of your hotspot,” McGregor said. “There are all kinds of things you can do to get better performance out of a cellular network.”
That includes “using beamforming technology every time someone connects, to increase the range of the base station by three or four times,” McGregor elaborated.
Beamforming is a signal processing technique which ensures the radio signals go in essentially straight lines between the transmitter and receiver to minimize energy loss and boost signal strength.
“All the State Department will be doing is employing techniques we’ve been using in the battlefield for decades,” McGregor said.
“None of this is secret,” McGregor added. “Why do you think we put so much emphasis on encoding and encryption?”
The Evil That Men Do
Washington’s efforts may help prevent communications clampdowns by repressive governments to curtail dissidents, as happened in the Middle East.
One outcome of those clampdowns is that an Egyptian court has fined ousted president Hosni Mubarak and two former government ministers a total of $91 million for cutting mobile communications and Internet services during protests in the country in January.
Ironically, American technology had helped countries in the Middle East clamp down on communications.
Internet service providers in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait reportedly used content filtering software from McAfee, while Blue Coat Systems sold hardware and technology to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. These technologies had been used by some of these governments to clamp down on dissidents, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“That’s the beauty and the curse of technology,” Fordham University’s Greer said. “It can be used for good or otherwise.”