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!

  • Brian Too

    Wait, are we helping or attacking dissidents now? I just need a status update.

  • Clever Name Alluding to Some Deeply Significant Concept

    Yes, as always.

  • Jeffery Alper

    I think that this is a great idea. I hope that this allows dissenters access to “real” information about what is happening in their countries and also allows them to contact people “outside” and shed “light” on what is happening in their country. At least the U.S. is getting involved in the freedom of other people in the world.

  • feh

    So, are US “dissidents” going to be able to get one of these babies in case the internet kill switch bill passes?

  • Philip

    Seems like this is a way for government agencies to more securely transfer information away from the public eye. It also acts as a safety net for these agencies if they decide to “kill switch” the internet, as feh mentioned. While the idea will be sold as a security measure meant to benefit the public, it will be the continuation of a gradual top-down strangle-hold on society.

  • Vogie

    Not nearly as cool as the Xbox Forever from Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, but the price point is fairly steep. Then again, it is a prototype of the Gen 1.

    On a consumer side, I’d love to see this as a general user thing eventually. Citywide ad-hocs in lieu of actual centralized ISPs? Sign me up. Even if it is pretty expensive or large – Would you pay $2-8,000 one-time vs the umpteen hundred dollars a month from Verizon/AT&T?

  • Iain

    So as soon as a state recognizes that the dissidents still have net access, they shut down cell phone service and HEY! PRESTO! information blackout.

  • Rilan

    I am a teenager and I began DESIGNING this exact technology one year before it was announced that the government was doing the same. When I saw that the government had gotten to it first, I just about fainted. My goal was also to help dissidents, and I planned to make my fortune by selling it in the U.S. and then use the money to help fund revolutions worldwide. Think. Once you have the hardware, you no longer have to pay for a cell phone service or an ISP. Even everyday people could benefit from it…like Vogie said.

    People laughed at my idea. They said it was impossible. Now I know that it is possible and is being used for the purpose I intended. The budget of 2 million dollars awed me. I planned to be a writer first to get the start-up money for my corporation, and could have easily made 2 million. I would have been done by 2016, since I have to finish High School first. I guess the dissidents need help sooner than that, and it would be selfish of me to wish no one else had gotten the idea before me…but…

    There must be a catch to the government using it. Why would they create something they knew they couldn’t control in the long run??? This is so fishy! Maybe I’m just being hopeful, since my idea has been stolen and now I have no concept of what to do with my future. I was reluctant to even talk about my idea online for fear someone would steal it and then make their fortune off of it, using it for their own personal gain instead of revolutions. So there’s no evidence that I even had the idea…except for documents inside my computer.

    I guess I can still sell it in the U.S. if nobody else does that. I’m looking for a business idea that’s brand new. Trying to develop something that already exists is too slow and risky, plus it doesn’t bring the same advantage.


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