US deploying "shadow" Internet systems

The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy "shadow" Internet to promote free speech.

New York: The Obama administration is
leading a global effort to deploy "shadow" Internet and mobile
phone systems in countries ruled by repressive regimes so that
dissidents can use them to get around government censorship, a
media report said on Sunday.

Financed with a USD two million State Department grant,
the effort includes secretive projects to create independent
cellphone networks inside foreign countries and undermine
repressive governments that seek to silence dissidents by
censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks, The
New York Times reported.

Under the plan, a group of young entrepreneurs have
developed a deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a
prototype "Internet in a suitcase."

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 report said.

The American effort, revealed in dozens of interviews,
planning documents and classified diplomatic cables, ranges in
scale, cost and sophistication, the Times said.

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 new initiatives have found a champion in Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton, who has made Internet freedom into a
signature cause.

"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," Clinton said in 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."

By the end of 2011, the State Department will have
spent some USD 70 million on circumvention efforts and related
technologies, according to department figures.

The State Department 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, the report quoted the participants in
the projects as saying.

In one of the most ambitious efforts, United States
officials say, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at
least USD 50 million to create an independent cellphone
network in Afghanistan using towers on protected military
bases inside the war-torn 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 mobilise, the report
said.

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, the report said.

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 destabilising autocratic
governments, the Times said.

The 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 centralised 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.

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.

PTI

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