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The report begins: "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."

Students at a school near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, use US-supplied FabFi wireless mesh radio technology to gain internet access without local service. (photo: Keith Berkoben/Fab Folk/NYT)
Students at a school near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, use US-supplied FabFi wireless mesh radio technology to gain internet access without local service. (photo: Keith Berkoben/Fab Folk/NYT)



The Obama Administration's "Shadow" Internet

By James Glanz and John Markoff, The New York Times

12 June 11

 

he 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 cellphone networks inside foreign 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 $2 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 American 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 like Iran, Syria and Libya, according to participants in the projects.

In one of the most ambitious efforts, United States officials say, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least $50 million to create an independent cellphone 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 mobilize.

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 Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.

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. American diplomats are meeting with operatives who have been burying Chinese cellphones 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 Rodham Clinton, whose department is spearheading the American 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 realize their aspirations," Mrs. Clinton said in an e-mail 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 nonpartisan research group.

"The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people's fundamental human right to communicate," Mr. 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 Mr. Meinrath, wearing a tie as the dean of the group at age 37. He has a master's degree in psychology and helped set up wireless networks in underserved communities in Detroit and Philadelphia.

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

Mr. 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 like 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. Mr. Kaplan has set up a functioning mesh network in Vienna and says related systems have operated in Venezuela, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Mr. 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 specializes 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," Mr. 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 Web site, estimates that nearly 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 discreetly beam information - a video, an electronic business card - directly from one cellphone to another.

Mr. 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 $70 million on circumvention efforts and related technologies, according to department figures.

Mrs. 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 destabilizing 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," Mr. 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 like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain while deploying technology that was likely to undermine them.

Shadow Cellphone System

In February 2009, Richard C. Holbrooke and Lt. Gen. John R. Allen were taking a helicopter tour over southern Afghanistan and getting a panoramic view of the cellphone towers dotting the remote countryside, according to two officials on the flight. By then, millions of Afghans were using cellphones, 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 good will 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, General Allen told Mr. 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 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., 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" cellphone system in a country where repressive forces exert control over the official network.

Details of the network, which the military named the Palisades project, are scarce, but current and former military and civilian officials said it relied in part on cell towers placed on protected American bases. A large tower on the Kandahar air base serves as a base station or data collection point for the network, officials said.

A senior United States official said the towers were close to being up and running in the south and described the effort as a kind of 911 system that would be available to anyone with a cellphone.

By shutting down cellphone service, the Taliban had found a potent strategic tool in its asymmetric battle with American and Afghan security forces.

The United States is widely understood to use cellphone networks in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries for intelligence gathering. And the ability to silence the network was also a powerful reminder to the local populace that the Taliban retained control over some of the most vital organs of the nation.

When asked about the system, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the American-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, would only confirm the existence of a project to create what he called an "expeditionary cellular communication service" in Afghanistan. He said the project was being carried out in collaboration with the Afghan government in order to "restore 24/7 cellular access."

"As of yet the program is not fully operational, so it would be premature to go into details," Colonel Dorrian said.

Colonel Dorrian declined to release cost figures. Estimates by United States military and civilian officials ranged widely, from $50 million to $250 million. A senior official said that Afghan officials, who anticipate taking over American bases when troops pull out, have insisted on an elaborate system. "The Afghans wanted the Cadillac plan, which is pretty expensive," the official said.

Broad Subversive Effort

In May 2009, a North Korean defector named Kim met with officials at the American Consulate in Shenyang, a Chinese city about 120 miles from North Korea, according to a diplomatic cable. Officials wanted to know how Mr. Kim, who was active in smuggling others out of the country, communicated across the border. "Kim would not go into much detail," the cable says, but did mention the burying of Chinese cellphones "on hillsides for people to dig up at night." Mr. Kim said Dandong, China, and the surrounding Jilin Province "were natural gathering points for cross-border cellphone communication and for meeting sources." The cellphones are able to pick up signals from towers in China, said Libby Liu, head of Radio Free Asia, the United States-financed broadcaster, who confirmed their existence and said her organization uses the calls to collect information for broadcasts as well.

The effort, in what is perhaps the world's most closed nation, suggests just how many independent actors are involved in the subversive efforts. From the activist geeks on L Street in Washington to the military engineers in Afghanistan, the global appeal of the technology hints at the craving for open communication.

In a chat with a Times reporter via Facebook, Malik Ibrahim Sahad, the son of Libyan dissidents who largely grew up in suburban Virginia, said he was tapping into the Internet using a commercial satellite connection in Benghazi. "Internet is in dire need here. The people are cut off in that respect," wrote Mr. Sahad, who had never been to Libya before the uprising and is now working in support of rebel authorities. Even so, he said, "I don't think this revolution could have taken place without the existence of the World Wide Web."


Reporting was contributed by Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Andrew W. Lehren from New York, and Alissa J. Rubin and Sangar Rahimi from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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+26 # propsguy 2011-06-12 13:19
great, please spend more of my tax dollars to overthrow other governments, while trying to curtail my liberties much the way those other governments do
 
 
+10 # ER444 2011-06-13 01:42
Of course this thing will eventually fall in the hands of "our enemies", whoever the hell they are. My God, we created Bin Laden etc. If we would just put so much energy into fixing things at home, maybe we wouldn't have so many "enemies". When will we ever learn ??
 
 
+8 # J.Lind 2011-06-12 13:25
A new silent war between systems where "their" hackers hack 'Our" hackers ad infinitum....un reported since it is all virtual warfare.

Don't come back orwell!
 
 
+28 # The Saint 2011-06-12 13:32
Can dissidents in this country get one?
 
 
+13 # jefffillmore 2011-06-12 15:14
Hell no, our govt will give us one that automatically turns us in.
 
 
+12 # ResplendentQuetzal 2011-06-12 15:58
First thing that crossed my mind too - hmm, we sure could use these right here in the good 'ol US of A.
 
 
+10 # Activista 2011-06-12 16:24
Hope that we get one to go around Patriot Act
 
 
-2 # Aaron Kahn-Bork 2011-06-13 14:52
Quoting The Saint:
Can dissidents in this country get one?


If there were a need for one you wouldn't have been able to post that comment. PLEASE, think before you type.
 
 
+21 # rm 2011-06-12 13:49
L street in Washington has always been the location of CIA fomented revolutions around the world. It is where the PR firms are housed who create the lies that mobilize the world. The obscene Savedarfur.org came from, producing lies and raising millions of dollars for the CIA backed rebels.

Fomenting and assisting in a revolution in another country is a crime under international law. The US and its private contractors on L Street and the CIA have no right to stir up revolutions anywhere in the world. I wonder how Americans would feel if there were an equivalent to L Street in Beijing or Moscow setting up shadow internets for use by rebels in the US. When the operators of these criminal conspiracies are arrested and jailed somewhere in the world, I'm sure Clinton and Obama will act shocked and outraged. But they would arrest similar conspirators operating in the US -- and they'd act self-righteous.

American imperialism is really disgusting. America does not support democracy and human rights around the world. Rather, it forces corrupt military dictatorships on people who really do want to be free and to enjoy full human rights. Mubarak was not chosen by the Egyptian people. He was forced on them by the US.

America needs a revolution more than any other place in the world. Our tyrants are the scourge of the earth.
 
 
+7 # Glen 2011-06-12 14:39
So we need a revolution rm? Great. You illustrated the very reason why U.S. citizens would lose. The U.S. government and military are experts at creating and destroying governments and citizen uprisings, with corporate assistance.

Citizens in the past have been mistaken when assuming the government would not turn on them. A revolution en mass would not be as good as a selective revenge. But good luck with that also.

I have no solutions.
 
 
+6 # rm 2011-06-12 16:29
Glen -- you are right. All groups who oppose the US government are infiltrated, monitored and eventually neutralized. The FBI's COINTELPRO was the classic case in which the FBI "decapitated" -- Hoover's term -- the civil rights movement or what Hoover called "the Black Radical Movement.

Walt -- you are not imagining things. Obama is looking just as bad as the Bush/Cheney regime. Obama has not made any kind of peace initiative at all.

Ironically, the best resistance and solution in the US is a tax revolt. It is happening. The very rich and corporations are refusing to pay taxes to support the criminal US government. The very poor don't pay taxes because their incomes are too low. To a very significant extent, only the middle class pays taxes and the middle class is rapidly being decimated. The American empire is running on borrowed and printed money. It will collapse of its own emptiness.
 
 
+6 # mtnview 2011-06-13 07:00
"The very rich and corporations are refusing to pay taxes to support the criminal US government." This is not a revolt, this is greed. When middle income people refuse to pay taxes, knowing the Man will come and take them away, that is a revolution.
 
 
+5 # Glen 2011-06-13 18:13
Right, rm. Obama is just carrying on as a crowned head, as George W. was. The agenda has been set and there is no going back. U.S. militarism is now one of the most powerful forces on the planet.

Many people are not aware of past actions by the U.S. government against citizens, whether veterans, miners, or students. The military, as mhoganyjones posted, "American troops have never refused an order to fire on their fellow amerikans", even as far as dropping bombs on marching miners or those in support of them. Agents hired by the government have also been more than willing to use brutality.

The U.S. government has always been on top of true threats to order, and even more so today.
 
 
+5 # mhoganyjones 2011-06-13 01:58
American troops have never refused an order to fire on their fellow amerikans to my knowledge...
 
 
0 # mhoganyjones 2011-06-13 01:59
Come on folks, we're smarter than that...look to Estonia and their singing revolution...
 
 
+1 # Glen 2011-06-13 18:06
Estonia had tanks on their border highways. Gorbechev put a stop to that. Otherwise, those tanks would have rumbled through the countryside and into Tallin. Once the military ball gets rolling, it takes power to stop it.
 
 
-2 # Aaron Kahn-Bork 2011-06-13 14:54
Quoting rm:
I wonder how Americans would feel if there were an equivalent to L Street in Beijing or Moscow setting up shadow internets for use by rebels in the US. When the operators of these criminal conspiracies are arrested and jailed somewhere in the world, I'm sure Clinton and Obama will act shocked and outraged. But they would arrest similar conspirators operating in the US -- and they'd act self-righteous...

America needs a revolution more than any other place in the world. Our tyrants are the scourge of the earth.


You can't even begin to make that comparison fairly - the United States government is a democracy, no matter how you feel about those currently in office. We have all the rights that the government is trying to support in other countries, so there would be absolutely no justified reason for another country to set up something similar in the US.
 
 
+5 # Glen 2011-06-14 07:41
Don't be fooled Aaron, by the facade of the U.S. and its government and the constitution. The democracy you defend is being torn down, just as the constitution is being dismantled. Also, don't be fooled by the activities of other governments and the need for control over territories and resources. All powerful countries are jockeying for position relative to those two projects. And all are using subversive and posturing methods to achieve it. The U.S. is NOT above this, and never was. The CIA is a vile organization that has caused changes in leadership and the deaths of thousands.

Never blindly follow our government or fall for their propaganda.
 
 
+15 # Walt 2011-06-12 14:19
Will someone please tell me if I am imagining things....?
Is the Obama administration looking worse than Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the host of others? Has anyone seen a serious peace initiative yet from the man who promised "change we can believe in?"
 
 
+6 # mhoganyjones 2011-06-13 01:55
New face on the same junta...
 
 
0 # Aaron Kahn-Bork 2011-06-13 14:56
Quoting Walt:
Will someone please tell me if I am imagining things....?
Is the Obama administration looking worse than Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the host of others? Has anyone seen a serious peace initiative yet from the man who promised "change we can believe in?"


Um, yes. Have you read this article?
 
 
+1 # Activista 2011-06-12 16:22
"enable activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like USA, GB, France.
Undermine Patriot Act
VIVA RFEVOLUTION
 
 
+1 # Activista 2011-06-12 16:27
"Syrian government also temporarily disabled much of that country's Internet, which had helped protesters mobilize"
from USraeli news - and then they used Internet to get thousands to Israeli border from 1967 occupation - and tens were shot ???
 
 
+7 # Ralph Averill 2011-06-12 17:23
"Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owne d Internet without getting caught."
Washington might want to hire Julian Assange as a consultant. After all charges are dropped, of course, including those against Bradley Manning.
 
 
+5 # head out the window 2011-06-12 20:09
Wonder if we can get one to defend our liberty in this country?
 
 
+5 # Cathy havens 2011-06-12 23:55
Yet another example of a president who can't seem to remember we're in a long recession. This is not where I want my tax dollars going, especially when our nation is facing so many critical budget cuts........:(
 
 
+3 # mhoganyjones 2011-06-13 01:54
good luck seeing this in the hands of Amerikan dissidents in similar situations; nor would I expect to see these in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, East Timor...basical ly you must be dreaming if you think this technology will be put to good use. Now if it can be replicated at a cheap enough cost....
 

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