Online freedom: an app for that is coming

June 11, 2012 by Rob Lever
An Egyptian man talks on the telephone in front of an army vehicle in central Cairo's Tahrir Square in May 2012. For people living in countries where the the government monitors and censors the Internet, help is on the way.

For people living in countries where the the government monitors and censors the Internet, help is on the way.

It may be in a smartphone app or it could be a clandestine wireless network that looks innocuous but allows people to communicate out of the view of government censors.

A project funded by the US government and developed by a Washington think tank called "Commotion Wireless" is being readied for delivery early next year.

The effort seeks to promote free expression online and takes advantage of the fact that more people are using mobile devices.

Such a system "is useful for people to communicate in situations when governments don't want them to," said Sascha Meinrath, head of the project at the New America Foundation.

While and played a role in the Arab Spring uprisings, these networks can also be used by governments to track or harass dissidents.

Commotion is designed as "a secure and reliable platform to ensure their communications cannot be controlled or cut off by authoritarian regimes," says the mission statement of the project.

Because it is a "mesh" network, each of those using the system becomes a "node," making it harder to shut down than a centralized access point.

"The doesn't live on any single device," says Preston Rhea, a program associate at New America who has been testing community wireless projects using the technology.

One test network was set up in a neighborhood in Washington where the local hacker community joined in by rigging up a makeshift antenna.

"The same technology would be able to help in countries like Syria where the government is trying to crack down on the free flow of information," said HacDC member Ben Mendis, who helped set up the local network.

The Commotion program became known as the "Internet in a suitcase," but those involved say it is a .

"This is not a suitcase full of specialized equipment, this is meant to run on whatever exists on the ground," Meinrath said. "It's all software."

But even some State Department officials use the "suitcase" term to describe the effort to get a quick, easy way to help people get around filtering and surveillance.

-- Emerging technology meets an emerging need --


Commotion is one of several projects being funded by the US State Department to promote online freedom, an extension of other human rights initiatives.

The United States has provided $76 million over the past four years for this and other programs for online freedom, and has another $25 million in the pipeline.

Ian Schuler, program manager in the State Department's office of Internet Freedom Programs, said US concerns rose with revelations about repression and shutdowns of Internet services in countries during the Arab Spring uprisings.

Because Commotion can get around Internet shutdowns, he said it appeared to be "a good combination of an emerging technology that met an emerging need.

"We saw that people having rights in one realm helps them have rights in another realm," he said.

Some projects keep a low profile, but officials agreed to discuss Commotion because those working on it have been open about it.

Assistant US Secretary of State Michael Posner said recently that his agency is supporting "a dozen different circumvention technologies" including a "panic button app for mobile phones," a "slingshot" program to identify censored content, and training programs to help activists in repressive areas to keep operating.

Although the US government funds the Commotion project, it is not making decisions on where to deploy it, officials said.

"Our goal is to allow people to express themselves and exercise their rights," Schuler told AFP. "The goal is not regime change.... We're not picking who does and doesn't receive this technology."

-- 'Battling the firewall of China' --


Among those involved in deploying the technology is Radio Free Asia, which is seeking to protect its sources and correspondents as well as those of other US-funded international broadcast operations.

"We've had a long history of battling the firewall of China," said RFA president Libby Liu.

"It's a constant challenge but we have been successful in keeping our source network intact."

Liu said a key to getting this type of technology out is to make connections with "a group that has a tech-savvy, in-country network" and "to make it compatible with the digital platform in the country."

In using these systems, Liu said a priority is keeping those who use it anonymous and safe.

"If you're the one person who is connecting on a satellite phone that person is pretty obvious," she said.

Over time, the software and encryption can be delivered through smartphone apps or other software transfers. So even if it is blocked in a country, it would just need one person to bring in the app on a computing device, which can then be transferred to others, said Meinrath.

"These apps can be blocked, but if one person enters the country with a cellphone carrying that app it can then be distributed," he said.

"It's going to be very difficult to stop the implementation of this type of technology."

Meinrath said activists need to know the system is not yet ready with proper encryption and security, but that it could be available early next year.

And he said it will be designed "to be secure even when devices have been compromised or infiltrated."

When word filtered out about the "suitcase" project, Iran's intelligence chief said the country had been preparing for it and was working on countermeasures, leading to bemusement in Washington.

"It was an incredible outreach tool to have Iran's head of intelligence say this is a threat," Meinrath said.

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1 / 5 (2) Jun 11, 2012
Oh, the unselfish government that pours money into this project, for the good of oppressed people. Totally so humane and commendable.

But what about the really oppressed people of North Korea, Tibet, and a couple of other places? Nobody seems to give a crap about them.

Then there are the regimes of China, Russia, etc. The Unselfish government wouldn't mind freedom apps rattling the establishments there. But, IMHO, these people really aren't oppressed near as bad as those above. Plus, if China gets turned upside down in an uprising, there will be a hell of a political, economical and maybe nuclear turmoil not only there, but globally on all of us.

Nice, lofty goals are ultimately just that, unless applied carefully and with proper deliberation.

I hope they know what they're doing.
3 / 5 (2) Jun 11, 2012
gwrede... what are you talking about? The article states that the government is not deploying this software or making any decisions regarding where it ends up being used... Did you even read the article?
1 / 5 (2) Jun 11, 2012
So officiously Deathclock insist that the govenrment is not deploying the software or making decisions about its use. Where is Deathclock's proof that what the govenment says or doesn't say can be trusted? In the Nayirah incident? The Gulf of Tonkin? The U.S.S. Maine? The claims of biological warfare installations in Iraq disguised as boxcars? Obama's assurance he would do things differently from Bush?
In fact, this is an overt violation of the right of another nation's government to make its rules. It may be an act of war, but don't expect the UN to condemn corporate thugs! And, remember, censorship doesn't really matter to conservatives. They champion corporations abridging the rights of people to speak the truth on their property. Even if it would help someone, they say it's more important that a corporate entity owning, say, a blog be allowed to keep those people from hearing the truth over the blog! Withholding truth is a matter of ethics, not just politics.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 11, 2012
All I did was state what the article said Julian, you lunatic.
1 / 5 (2) Jun 11, 2012
Deathclock uses the New World Order technique of name caling to make their point in front of the dull witted who are the NWO's target audience. They think that simply calling names and beoing arrogant automatically makes someone "right". To begin with Deathclock did not agree with gwrede, which indicates that it's more than repeating the article, Deathclock is tqacitly expressing solidarity with it. Then the insulting rejoinder, "Did you even read the article?" is suggesting that it is an act of foolhardiness not to let the words of the article constitute all of reality. In fact, the software is to serve the NWO's ends, it is an act of war in that way and Deathclock is, like a quisling, trying to downgrade that idea.
not rated yet Jun 11, 2012
This is a good project. Once it is mature, there will be nothing the US or any other government or corporation will be able to do to stop it from spreading everywhere.

Understanding how the technology works will tell you that.

Imagine every communication device on Earth working like the 'People's Microphone', with no more central points of control such as TV stations or phone companies.

Are we serious about freedom of speech, or not?
5 / 5 (1) Jun 11, 2012
As someone involved in the Commotion project (but definitely not getting any government money), and as a *big* fan of FOSS I can assure you that there is no government hankypanky with the source code and you can verify that for yourself by going to the Commotion Wireless site and looking in their source code. Also anyone, anywhere can use it and the only things stopping them are the oppressive governments that prevent access to it online (there are other ways to acquire software though).
As for those who need a quick out of band network or to make large temporary networks connected to the internet, we (some people at the DC hackerspace mentioned above) are working on a live linux distribution that makes setting up a wireless mesh network easy enough for the average geek to teach the average person to do in a couple minutes.

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