by James Glanz and John Markoff
June 12, 2011
Reporting was contributed by
Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Andrew W. Lehren from New York,
and Alissa J. Rubin and Sangar
Rahimi from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Volunteers have built
a wireless Internet
Afghanistan, from off-the-shelf electronics and ordinary materials
Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow”
Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine
repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting
down telecommunications networks.
The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone
networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy
novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of
young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are
fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in
Financed with a $2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be
secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication
over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.
The American effort, revealed in dozens of interviews, planning documents
and classified diplomatic cables obtained by The New York Times, ranges in
scale, cost and sophistication.
Some projects involve technology that the United States is developing;
others pull together tools that have already been created by hackers in a
so-called liberation-technology movement sweeping the globe.
The State Department, for example, is financing the creation of stealth
wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the
reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya, according to
participants in the projects.
In one of the most ambitious efforts, United States officials say, the State
Department and Pentagon have spent at least $50 million to create an
independent cellphone network in Afghanistan using towers on protected
military bases inside the country. It is intended to offset the Taliban’s
ability to shut down the official Afghan services, seemingly at will.
The effort has picked up momentum since the government of President Hosni
Mubarak shut down the Egyptian Internet in the last days of his rule. In
recent days, the Syrian government also temporarily disabled much of that
country’s Internet, which had helped protesters mobilize.
The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a
longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy.
For decades, the United States has sent radio
broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other
means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software
that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for
citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet
without getting caught.
But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for
communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats
and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a
dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more
audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.
Sometimes the State Department is simply taking advantage of enterprising
dissidents who have found ways to get around government censorship. American
diplomats are meeting with operatives who have been burying Chinese
cellphones in the hills near the border with North Korea, where they can be
dug up and used to make furtive calls, according to interviews and the
The new initiatives have found a champion in Secretary of State Hillary
Rodham Clinton, whose department is spearheading the American effort.
Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive
governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use
the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.
But others believe that the risks are outweighed
by the potential impact.
“We’re going to build a separate
infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down,
to control, to surveil,” said Sascha Meinrath, who is leading the
“Internet in a suitcase” project as director of the Open Technology
Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.
“The implication is that this disempowers
central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right
to communicate,” Mr. Meinrath added.
The Invisible Web
In an anonymous office building on L Street in Washington, four unlikely
State Department contractors sat around a table.
Josh King, sporting multiple ear piercings and a
studded leather wristband, taught himself programming while working as a
Thomas Gideon was an accomplished hacker.
Dan Meredith, a bicycle
polo enthusiast, helped companies protect their digital secrets.
Then there was Mr. Meinrath, wearing a tie as the dean of the group at age
He has a master’s degree in psychology and helped set up wireless
networks in underserved communities in Detroit and Philadelphia.
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.
The project will also rely on the innovations of independent Internet and
“The cool thing in this political context is
that you cannot easily control it,” said Aaron Kaplan, an Austrian
cybersecurity expert whose work will be used in the suitcase project.
Mr. Kaplan has set up a functioning mesh network
in Vienna and says related systems have operated in Venezuela, Indonesia and
Mr. Meinrath said his team was focused on fitting the system into the
bland-looking suitcase and making it simple to implement - by, say, using
“pictograms” in the how-to manual.
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.
Creating simple lines of communication outside official ones is crucial,
said Collin Anderson, a 26-year-old liberation-technology researcher from
North Dakota who specializes in Iran, where the government all but shut down
the Internet during protests in 2009.
The slowdown made most “circumvention”
technologies - the software legerdemain that helps dissidents sneak data
along the state-controlled networks - nearly useless, he said.
“No matter how much circumvention the
protesters use, if the government slows the network down to a crawl, you
can’t upload YouTube videos or Facebook postings,” Mr. Anderson said.
“They need alternative ways of sharing information or alternative ways
of getting it out of the country.”
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
Mrs. Clinton has made Internet freedom into a signature cause. But the State
Department has carefully framed its support as promoting free speech and
human rights for their own sake, not as a policy aimed at destabilizing
That distinction is difficult to maintain, said Clay Shirky, an assistant
professor at New York University who studies the Internet and social media.
“You can’t say, ‘All we want is for people
to speak their minds, not bring down autocratic regimes’ - they’re the
same thing,” Mr. Shirky said.
He added that the United States could expose
itself to charges of hypocrisy if the State Department maintained its
support, tacit or otherwise, for autocratic governments running countries
like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain while deploying technology that was likely to
In February 2009, Richard C. Holbrooke and Lt. Gen. John R. Allen were
taking a helicopter tour over southern Afghanistan and getting a panoramic
view of the cellphone towers dotting the remote countryside, according to
two officials on the flight.
By then, millions of Afghans were using
cellphones, compared with a few thousand after the 2001 invasion.
built by private companies had sprung up across the country. The United
States had promoted the network as a way to cultivate good will and
encourage local businesses in a country that in other ways looked as if it
had not changed much in centuries.
There was just one problem, General Allen told Mr. Holbrooke, who only weeks
before had been appointed special envoy to the region.
With a combination of threats to phone company
officials and attacks on the towers, the Taliban was able to shut down the
main network in the countryside virtually at will. Local residents report
that the networks are often out from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., presumably to
enable the Taliban to carry out operations without being reported to
The Pentagon and State Department were soon collaborating on the project to
build a “shadow” cellphone system in a country where repressive forces exert
control over the official network.
Details of the network, which the military named the Palisades project, are
scarce, but current and former military and civilian officials said it
relied in part on cell towers placed on protected American bases. A large
tower on the Kandahar air base serves as a base station or data collection
point for the network, officials said.
A senior United States official said the towers were close to being up and
running in the south and described the effort as a kind of 911 system that
would be available to anyone with a cellphone.
By shutting down cellphone service, the Taliban had found a potent strategic
tool in its asymmetric battle with American and Afghan security forces.
The United States is widely understood to use cellphone networks in
Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries for intelligence gathering. And the
ability to silence the network was also a powerful reminder to the local
populace that the Taliban retained control over some of the most vital
organs of the nation.
When asked about the system, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the
American-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, would only
confirm the existence of a project to create what he called an
“expeditionary cellular communication service” in Afghanistan.
He said the project was being carried out in
collaboration with the Afghan government in order to “restore 24/7 cellular
“As of yet the program is not fully
operational, so it would be premature to go into details,” Colonel
Colonel Dorrian declined to release cost
figures. Estimates by United States military and civilian officials ranged
widely, from $50 million to $250 million.
A senior official said that Afghan officials,
who anticipate taking over American bases when troops pull out, have
insisted on an elaborate system.
“The Afghans wanted the Cadillac plan, which
is pretty expensive,” the official said.
In May 2009, a North Korean defector named Kim met with officials at the
American Consulate in Shenyang, a Chinese city about 120 miles from North
Korea, according to a diplomatic cable.
Officials wanted to know how Mr.
Kim, who was active in smuggling others out of the country, communicated
across the border.
“Kim would not go into much detail,” the
cable says, but did mention the burying of Chinese cellphones “on
hillsides for people to dig up at night.”
Mr. Kim said Dandong, China, and the surrounding
“were natural gathering points for
cross-border cellphone communication and for meeting sources.”
The cellphones are able to pick up signals from
towers in China, said Libby Liu, head of Radio Free Asia, the United
States-financed broadcaster, who confirmed their existence and said her
organization uses the calls to collect information for broadcasts as well.
The effort, in what is perhaps the world’s most closed nation, suggests just
how many independent actors are involved in the subversive efforts.
activist geeks on L Street in Washington to the military engineers in
Afghanistan, the global appeal of the technology hints at the craving for
In a chat with a Times reporter via Facebook, Malik Ibrahim Sahad, the son
of Libyan dissidents who largely grew up in suburban Virginia, said he was
tapping into the Internet using a commercial satellite connection in
“Internet is in dire need here. The people
are cut off in that respect,” wrote Mr. Sahad, who had never been to
Libya before the uprising and is now working in support of rebel
Even so, he said,
“I don’t think this revolution could have
taken place without the existence of the World Wide Web.”