Share & Connect
The Obama administration is working to provide dissidents with a new tool in their struggle against corrupt regimes: covert communications networks that cannot be shut down by official censors.
According to The New York Times, the government’s plans range from parallel cellphone networks to a futuristic “Internet in a suitcase.” The innocent-looking piece of luggage could easily be smuggled across a border and provide a highly-portable wireless connection that would give dissident groups a link to the outside world. In essence, each ‘suitcase’ would act like a miniature cellphone tower and provide the ability to transmit information without using official networks.
In Afghanistan, the State Department and the Pentagon have spent $50 million to create an independent cellphone network to circumvent the Taliban’s attacks on official telecommunications services. The US is also working to enable mobile phone users to send files directly from phone to phone via Bluetooth.
The recent uprisings in the Arab world have underscored the Internet’s ability to foment widespread opposition. Consequently, despots from Cairo to Damascus have sought to block their citizens’ access to the Internet in order to stifle uprisings. During uprisings in 2009, Iran launched an “Internet slowdown” which made it much more difficult for activists to use social media to mobilize support for their cause.
“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,” said Collin Anderson, a liberation-technology researcher who spoke to the New York Times. “They need alternative ways of sharing information or alternative ways of getting it out of the country,” he continued.
Not all strategies are high tech, however. In North Korea, America has shown an interest in local dissents who bury Chinese cell phones near the border for use in making clandestine calls. Among other things, these calls have helped coordinate efforts to smuggle North Korean defectors across the border into China.
The New York Times quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying that “There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports.”
“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,” she continued.
The United States has a long history of using technology to undermine hostile regimes. In 1940, it began using shortwave radio broadcasts to counter Nazi propaganda in Latin America. The Voice of America began broadcasting behind enemy lines after America entered World War II. And during the Cold War, it worked to counter Soviet propaganda.