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State Dept-funded program installs alternative networks abroad

Published time: April 21, 2014 16:43
AFP Photo / Wathiq Khuzaie

AFP Photo / Wathiq Khuzaie

While some security experts have recently accused the United States government of undermining the infrastructure and integrity of the web, the State Department is helping fund a project that lets people connect and communicate over alternative networks.

Since last June, revelations about the US National Security Agency and how it goes about getting intelligence from foreign suspects have continued to surface, in turn rekindling all too routinely allegations about how the internet has been practically obliterated by the NSA.

Leaked intelligence documents disclosed to the media during that span by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have indeed impacted the way the world sees the American government with regards to protecting a medium of communication that continues to grow. But while these heightened concerns about online privacy are without a doubt warranted thanks to Mr. Snowden's revelations, one former government official now tells the New York Times that a project largely funded by the Department of State is actually making it easier for people in certain parts of the world to communicate and collaborate over a parallel internet of sorts.

“Exactly at the time that the NSA was developing the technology that Snowden has disclosed, the State Department was funding some of the most powerful digital tools to protect freedom of expression around the world,” Ben Scott told the New York Times for an article published in Monday's paper. According to Scott — a former State Dept. official who helped the agency get involved in a program that is putting the web back into the hands of the people — the US government has actually been playing a pivotal role in letting new parts of the world become networked.

“It is in my mind one of the great, unreported ironies of the first Obama administration,” Scott told the Times.

One of those endeavors that's been spearheaded by the State Dept. is Commotion: an open-source toolkit that provides users with the technology to connect wireless devices like laptops and cellphones to a mesh network where they can communicate and share local services.

Unlike the internet as it's largely considered, mesh networks like the ones setup through Commotion don't necessarily allow users to connect and then browse Facebook accounts or check sports scores. Instead, it provides a way for network-ready devices to communicate with one another in the event of an emergency or internet blackout of sorts, and then use common services that are shared throughout the ad hoc networks.

“The technology behind Commotion is designed with the users in mind, specifically to enable them to connect with one another, access information they may not otherwise have access to and take existing community social networks into the 21st century,” Thomas Gideon, the director of the Open Technology Institute's tech team, wrote in a press release issued late last year when beta testing of Commotion 1.0 was completed.

“The release of Commotion 1.0 is exciting for us not only because of the technology itself, but because of the great things communities will be able to do with it as they are able to provide access to broadband where it may not otherwise exist, where it may be cost-prohibitive or where it may be blocked,” Gideon said. “This opens up tremendous opportunities. Whether a community loses traditional infrastructure because of a natural disaster or as the result of a repressive regime, Commotion provides a locally-owned alternative for diverse communities in the United States and around the world.”

In the Times this week, journalists Carlotta Gall and James Glanz explained that a series of Commotion test runs carried out abroad have already helped people create and connect mesh networks when wireless communications might not otherwise be viable. As those reporters wrote, the US State Dept. has handed over $2.8 million to the American technologists working on perfecting Commotion, and networks have already been established around the globe as a result.

A project in the city of Sayada, Tunisia, for example, went live last December with the help of the State Dept. There, according to Commotion's press release at the time, “local media has hailed the deployment of a beta version of Commotion for powering the first free community WiFi network in Tunisia, and serving as a model for the rest of the country for its potential to strengthen democratic institutions and boost social and economic opportunities.”

“The mesh network blankets areas of town including the main street, the weekly market, the town hall and the train station, and users have access to a local server containing Wikipedia in French and Arabic, town street maps, 2,500 free books in French and an app for secure chatting and file sharing,” Gall and Glanx wrote for the Times this week.

According to their report, it only took a small team of technologists and around 50 local residents equipped with routers and wireless devices to get a functional mesh network in place in Sayada for its 14,000 people. The entire process took around two weeks.

But as concerns over internet censorship continue to emerge throughout the world, other locales just like Sayada may start to set up similar networks. According to the December statement from Commotion's team, Somaliland, Dahanu, India, Brooklyn, New York and Detroit, Michigan have all experimented with the system as well.

In Manhattan earlier this month, a group of hackers met up and practiced an imaginary apocalyptic scenario in which the internet spontaneously goes offline.

“It’s comforting to know that someone is preparing for Internet Armageddon, given the events of recent years,”New Yorker journalist Joshua Kopstein recalled afterward. "In 2011, when Hosni Mubarak, then the President of Egypt, instituted a country-wide Internet and cell-phone blackout during that country’s revolution, the concept was relatively new. These days, stories of state-mandated Internet shutdowns have become almost commonplace, forcing us to rethink networks whose resilience we once took for granted.”

And according to the Times, Cuba could be the next locale looking for a solution to that problem. The United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, “awarded a three-year grant to the New America Foundation to make this platform available for adoption in Cuba,” Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the agency, told the paper.

Critics are expected to be quick to condemn that effort, however, given recent news about another USAID program that installed a social network in Cuba per the directive of the US government. The so-called “Cuban Twitter” program revealed earlier this month by the Associated Press has since attracted a fair share of opposition, especially after it was reported that the endeavor wasn't launched solely to let Cubans communicate over a new medium, but rather to encourage revolt by spreading among users political stories critical of that country's government.

Herrick told the Times that the new mesh network program is not operational yet and that no USAID staffers have even ventured to Cuba to begin work on it. According to the Times, however, the agency has already pledged $4.3 million to getting a Commotion mesh network off the ground there, suggesting that the US government is indeed interested in ensuring that, even if privacy on the internet may continue to be eroded by the NSA's practice, the government is giving people somewhere a way — albeit not exactly an entirely secure one — to sign on and share info. In some situations, however, those mesh networks may be the only way that residents will be able to communicate with one another and access information.

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