The United States is helping fund and develop technology that can be used to bypass Internet censors in other countries, according to The New York Times.
The State Department has several initiatives in place to establish cell phone networks and other communications systems in various countries to bypass the repressive regimes' control over the Internet, the Times reported June 12. The report cited planning documents, classified diplomatic cables and anonymous sources.
Governments have long used their control over telecommunications companies and Internet service providers to control the Internet and to censor the kind of information available to their citizens.
During the height of anti-government protests in North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year, many of the governments decided to disable Internet access or to restrict traffic. Egypt shut down the Internet entirely for nearly a week, Libya imposed a curfew and Bahrain significantly increased Web filtering. Syria temporarily shut down Internet access within its borders June 7.
"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," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in an email to the Times.
The United States has been increasingly trumpeting the importance of Internet freedom as part of its foreign policy platform. Clinton said in a Feb. 15 speech that "freedom to connect" was a foreign policy priority and pledged $25 million in new grants to support "technologists and activists" fighting Internet repression to stay ahead of "repressive governments."
The United Nations has recently declared that disconnecting people from the Internet was a violation of basic human rights.
Some of the techniques appear to be fairly low-tech while others require sophisticated technology to build "shadow" communications networks. In one project, the State Department has spent approximately $50 million to build a cell phone network physically beyond the control of both the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul. The project relied on towers built on U.S. military bases, unnamed U.S. officials told the Times.
The State Department is also financing projects to create stealth wireless networks, including a $2 million grant to develop the "Internet in a suitcase." The networking access points were designed to look like regular suitcases that communicate with each other to create ad-hoc mesh networks connected to the global Internet. These suitcases could be smuggled into a country and deployed over an area to create a service independent of government control.
"We're going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil," said Sascha Meinrath, the lead researcher on the project, a part of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative.
Another initiative relies on Bluetooth technology where activists can beam data over short-range connections. Users would flag data that can be automatically transferred to other trusted users over Bluetooth as soon as the devices come in range. There would be no need to physically initiate the transfer or to accept the content, so authorities won't even see the information being passed around.
American diplomats also met with a defector from North Korea who described a system where Chinese cell phones are buried near the border, allowing anyone who knows the locations to make outgoing calls over the Chinese network.
The Obama administration's initiative is not the first time the United States has supported efforts to bypass Internet censors. Washington has supported the development of software that allows users to surf the Web anonymously as well as to send email messages even when the Internet is turned off.