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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.

But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication.

It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.

Sometimes, the State Department is simply taking advantage of enterprising dissidents who have found ways to get around government censorship. US diplomats are meeting operatives who have been burying Chinese mobile phones in the hills near the border with North Korea, where they can be dug up and used to make furtive calls, according to interviews and the diplomatic cables.

The new initiatives have found a champion in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose department is spearheading the US effort.

"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 realise their aspirations," Clinton said in an email 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."

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.

But others believe that the risks are outweighed by the potential impact. "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 as director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan research group.

"The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people's fundamental human right to communicate," Meinrath added.

The invisible web

In an anonymous office building on L Street in Washington, four unlikely State Department contractors sat around a table. Josh King, sporting multiple ear piercings and a studded leather wristband, taught himself programming while working as a barista. Thomas Gideon was an accomplished hacker. Dan Meredith, a bicycle polo enthusiast, helped companies protect their digital secrets.

Then there was Meinrath, wearing a tie as the dean of the group at age 37. He has a masters degree in psychology and helped set up wireless networks in underserved communities in Detroit and Philadelphia.


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