The U.S. government is coordinating a number of initiatives to create “shadow” Internet and cell phone networks in authoritarian countries, supporting dissidents’ proven ability to undermine oppressive regimes with strong communications.
The New York Times reported on several efforts to ensure that authoritarian regimes can’t stifle electronic protest or organization.
State Department reportedly granted $2 million to develop an “Internet in a suitcase” solution that can be easily smuggled into countries and deployed with minimal technical know-how. Each suitcase is a wireless access point that links to others, forming a mesh network that relays data even if authorities shut down the real Internet.
There are also reportedly efforts to create independent cellular networks inside countries ruled by repressive regimes, including Iran, Syria and Libya. In Afghanistan, where the Taliban can reportedly disable the national cell network at will (and routinely does at night, to prevent reporting of their movements), the U.S. has spent at least $50 million on a separate network with base stations located in military compounds.
“We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil,” said Sascha Meinrath, a researcher who leads the “Internet in a suitcase” project, to the New York Times. “The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate.”
The news comes as political opposition to authoritarian regimes rocks the Arab world. The Internet is often cited as a key method of coordinating protest and communicating the sometimes violent results to the rest of the world, and U.S. efforts to deploy alternate networks could help foster revolutions.
Authorities have disrupted data and voice networks in efforts to quell unrest. Egypt, Libya and Syria have all manipulated communications networks, in some cases knocking the entire country off the Internet.
The U.S. efforts are designed to work around such attempts to mute dissent, as well as to provide a back channel that protesters can use without being monitored by authorities.
Ironically, such technologies could also fuel unrest in countries where the U.S. is heavily invested in the status quo, such as Saudi Arabia.
The UN recently declared that disconnecting people from the Internet is a violation of basic human rights.