Internet-in-a-suitcase would give voice to censored protesters

A U.S. project would give protesters the ability to set up a mobile network when their country’s officials try to restrict free speech by shutting down Internet connections.

The tools for fomenting an Egyptian-style protest fit inside a suitcase intended to be sneaked across international borders.

The U.S. government is developing a kit that could deliver a mobile Internet to people in countries where leaders seek to stifle free speech, according to the New York Times’ James Glanz and John Markoff. Working with techies ranging from former hackers to networking experts, agencies such as the State and Defense departments have invested millions of dollars in the initiative, Glanz and Markoff wrote.

The purpose of the project is to enable protesters to remain connected to the Internet — and one another and the outside world — when a country seeks to squash a protest by shutting down Internet access or slowing network traffic to a crawl, Glanz and Markoff wrote. To deliver the goods, U.S. officials would coordinate a plot to deliver the suitcase to local residents of a country in turmoil, conjuring the travails of James Bond and other spy heroes.

The New York Times’ lengthy report, which includes a picture of the networking equipment that the suitcase might contain, nearly coincides with a recent United Nations declaration that Internet access is a basic human right. Frank La Rue, a U.N. special rapporteur who focuses on human rights, issued a report in which he states that the Internet has become “an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress,” writes the National Journal’s Adam Clark Estes.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to whole-heartedly agree with that assessment, according to the New York Times report. The State Department is working with the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative on the Internet in a suitcase project, and the group has outfitted the case with technology that will make it nearly impossible to shut down or track an upstart mobile network, they write. That’s an important consideration because Internet access won’t do much good if an oppressive government can easily track down rogue access points and disconnect dissidents — or worse.

The ability to create a resilient network is a difficult task. As Defense Systems, a sister publication of GCN, reported recently, the U.S. military services are looking to provide reliable cellular networks on the front lines of battlefields. Oceus Networks has a new system that will extend 4G Long Term Evolution connectivity to warfighters, and that connection will be compatible with older devices. Insurgents in Afghanistan recognize the importance of mobile networks, and they are more frequently attacking civilian infrastructure targets, such as road construction companies and cellular towers, writes the Associated Press’ Rahim Faiez.

At the national level, several Middle Eastern countries have limited Internet access to quell democratic protesters. Mashable’s Ben Parr writes that Syria recently slashed access to mobile phone and Internet networks, in addition to its prolonged ban on social media services, such as Twitter and Facebook. Those services were critical in the uprising in Egypt that led to the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.

The Internet in a suitcase project would allow such protesters to set up a mesh network using small wireless antennas and thumb drives that can spread software to other computers and encrypt messages, Glanz and Markoff write. That ability to circumvent official mandates has drawn the ire of Iran’s leaders.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast equated with the plot with cyber warfare against Iran, according to the Mehr News, which is affiliated with the Tehran Times, an independent newspaper in the country’s capital. Mehmanparast said the use of such tools in Iran would only lead to a crushing defeat.

NEXT STORY: The wireless IP explosion

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