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124193Re: [CubaNews] *important* - NYT: U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors

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  • walter tillow
    Jun 12, 2011
      This NYT story will tell you more about what Allan Gross was doing
      in his five trips to Cuba than the State Dept./U.S. media  cover story about
      his helping the Cuban jewish community connect to the internet.

      From: walterlx <walterlx@...>
      To: CubaNews@yahoogroups.com
      Sent: Sun, June 12, 2011 9:20:36 AM
      Subject: [CubaNews] *important* - NYT: U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around

      (While Cuba isn't mentioned in this article, the
      island is an obvious target of such projects as
      are described in this important report. If your
      thoughts wandered to what kinds of projects Alan
      Gross was engaged in when apprehended by Cuba's
      authorities, this item should prove enlightening.

      (If you ever wondered how Yoani Sanchez could be
      maintaining a constant stream of complaints via
      her blog or Twitter account while the individual
      asking to use the Internet in a Cuban hotel, the
      answer is quite possibly to be found right here.)

      June 12, 2011
      U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors

      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 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

      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

      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

      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.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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