“Internet in a Suitcase”, Washington’s Project to Beat Censorship

Article  by  Arnaud MIQUEL  •  Published 11.08.2011  •  Updated 18.08.2011
The U.S. is developing a prototype phantom Internet designed for dissidents under dictatorial regimes to circumvent censorship. In line with Obama’s support for Internet freedom, this project involving diplomats, military engineers and programmers should also be of interest to journalists.

The unprecedented use of the Internet was no doubt a crucial factor in the upsurge of the Arab Spring. And wherever power is challenged, the main communication networks are restricted, sometimes shut down – from the cut-off of traffic in Egypt to the drastic limitation of access in Syria and the filtering crackdown in Bahrain. The New York Times has revealed that to counter this trend, the Obama administration is apparently developing several mobile telephone and phantom Internet projects for deployment in regions of the world where freedom of expression is hindered.
Without waiting for official confirmation from the American government, the newspaper outlined several figures and projects obtained from secret diplomatic telegrams or informal interviews. With a total estimated budget of $70 million, the operation is both military and civilian in nature and aims to refurbish sensitive areas of the world with alternative and secure communication facilities. The Pentagon is directly interested and is playing a pivotal role in financing the research. $50 million went into one particular trial in Afghanistan with an independent mobile telephone network under the name “Palisades”.  The installation is completely reliant on relay towers located in the various American military bases in the country and is designed to guard telecommunications against any risk of sabotage by the Taliban.
Despite a much lower budget of $2 million, attention is nonetheless focused on the prototype announced under the codename “Internet in a suitcase”. Fitted with several Wi-Fi antennas, laptop computers to administer the system, external hard drives and installation CDs to connect to the network and encrypt communications, these suitcases could be discreetly abandoned just over the border of countries that are over-restrictive in the use of telecommunications. Easy to activate, they would allow for the rapid deployment of a stealth-type Internet network independent of any local government influence. In order to benefit from optimal geographic coverage, in keeping with the project’s ambitions, the whole system would be based on the “Mesh” principle, which turns each user into a router and an additional link in the network’s deployment.   In this way, if one connection goes down, information can continue to circulate between the points still functioning. Similarly, the size of the network adapts automatically to the number of users present: the more users, the better “meshed” and more independent the system.
By designing parallel new paths of communication, the Obama administration seems to have reached a major turning point in its Internet freedom policy – one that the president and his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, have together acknowledged to be a fundamental principle of human rights. For some time, the U.S. government has made do with bringing technical or ideological support to certain breakaway movements but without ever creating alternative networks. Here, it is about completely breaking away from existing technologies to develop new outlets for communication between dissidents. Pitched mainly at hackers and activists, the journalists who are the primary creators of information, should also find use in these new tools free from all control. As Danny O’Brian, Internet advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists[+] NoteAn NGO set up in San Francisco in 1981 to defend the interests of the press worldwide.X [1], stated in reviewing attacks on the press in 2010: “the battle for a free online press is often invisible, even for those involved in the conflict”. The use of a phantom Internet network to circumvent systems of censorship represents an ideal tool for the profession. The “Enemies of the Internet” list drawn up by Reporters without Borders lays out the priority destinations for these suitcases, with Iran, Libya and Syria at the top of the list – countries already mentioned in American diplomatic telegrams. 
However, the State Department, currently under Hillary Clinton, has clearly differentiated between the desire to promote freedom of expression that this project represents and any official policy to destabilise authoritarian regimes in place. Clay Shirky, a journalist, teacher and consultant specialized in new technologies, sees in this a form of linguistic and strategic schizophrenia that must be overcome: one cannot hope to promote freedom of expression around the world via the Internet without also hoping for or expecting user-driven political repercussions.
Translated from the French by Sara Heft.

Photo Credit : Tennessee Wanderer / Flickr
  • 1. An NGO set up in San Francisco in 1981 to defend the interests of the press worldwide.
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