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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.

The group's suitcase project will rely on a version of "mesh network" technology, which can transform devices such as mobiles or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralised hub. In other words, a voice, picture or email message could hop directly between the modified wireless devices - each one acting as a mini mobile "tower" and phone - and bypass the official network.

Meinrath said that 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 lsuch as ethernet cables.

The project will also rely on the innovations of independent internet and telecommunications developers.

"The cool thing in this political context is that you cannot easily control it," said Aaron Kaplan, an Austrian cybersecurity expert whose work will be used in the suitcase project. Kaplan has set up a functioning mesh network in Vienna and says related systems have operated in Venezuela, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Meinrath said his team was focused on fitting the system into the bland-looking suitcase and making it simple to implement - by, say, using "pictograms" in the how-to manual.

In addition to the Obama administration's initiatives, there are almost a dozen independent ventures that also aim to make it possible for unskilled users to employ existing devices like laptops or smartphones to build a wireless network. One mesh network was created around Jalalabad, Afghanistan, as early as five years ago, using technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Creating simple lines of communication outside official ones is crucial, said Collin Anderson, a 26-year-old liberation-technology researcher from North Dakota who specialises in Iran, where the government all but shut down the internet during protests in 2009. The slowdown made most "circumvention" technologies - the software legerdemain that helps dissidents sneak data along the state-controlled networks - nearly useless, he said.

"No matter how much circumvention the protesters use, if the government slows the network down to a crawl, you can't upload YouTube videos or Facebook postings," Anderson said. "They need alternative ways of sharing information or alternative ways of getting it out of the country."

That need is so urgent, citizens are finding their own ways to set up rudimentary networks.

Mehdi Yahyanejad, an Iranian expatriate and technology developer who co-founded a popular Persian-language website, estimates that half the people who visit the site from inside Iran share files using Bluetooth - which is best known in the West for running wireless headsets and the like. In more closed societies, however, Bluetooth is used to beam information discreetly - a video, an electronic business card - directly from one mobile phone to another.


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