A New York Times story today – U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors by John Markoff and James Glanz, details United States efforts to build alternative communications networks in repressive states These range from alternative cellphone systems to “Internet in a Suitcase” mesh networking. The latter project is headed by Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, and has received $2 million in funding.
From the story:
“We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil,” said Mr. Meinrath. “The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate,” added.
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.
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 Technology.
Recent government internet shutdowns in the Middle East have spurred efforts.
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.