US State Department Backing "Shadow" Internet and Cellphone Projects

By Valerie Ross | June 14, 2011 1:08 pm

The internet can fit in here, thanks to a State Department-backed effort.

What’s the News: The US government is spearheading—and funding—projects to create “shadow” internet and mobile phone systems, the New York Times reported on Sunday. These systems would allow dissidents to share information and go online in areas where governments have cut off, censored, or severely slowed access to global internet and cellphone networks.

How the Heck: The State Department-funded projects include…

  • Putting the internet in a suitcase. Backed by a $2 million State Department grant, a group of engineers, programmers, and hackers have developed a prototype of the “internet in a suitcase,” a surprisingly small set of hardware components that could be concealed and transported with relative ease. This hardware would enable dissidents to set up a mesh network, in which computers and other internet-ready devices communicate point to point, without sending the information through a central hub or connecting to the global internet. (See a graphic of how this system compares to a standard network here.)
  • Setting up independent mobile networks. In Afghanistan, the Pentagon and State Department have been collaborating on a shadow cellphone network that operates independently of private companies’ cellular towers, which are largely Taliban-controlled. Few details of the program have been released, but the network relies in part on the towers of nearby American bases, and has cost at least $50 million. Another project set to receive State Department dollars would let cellphone users send files directly from phone to phone—bypassing the official network—using Bluetooth.

What’s the Context:

  • In recent months, governments in Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain have all cut off or limited internet access during times of upheaval, showing that government are willing to shut down the internet in an effort to silence dissent and underscoring the need for independent access.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already pledged $25 million towards projects to help people circumvent “thugs, hackers, and censors” a few months ago. By the end of the year, the US will have spent at least $70 million on these efforts.

[via The New York Times]

Image: Flickr / erix!


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