NYT: U.S. funds censor-evading Internet work

Shadow networks can bypass those that are censored by authorities or attacked by enemies, unlike ordinary cell phone towers in Afghanistan.

In the days of the Cold War, the United States used the Voice of America radio station to spread information in countries without speech and press freedoms. Now it's begun a 21st century equivalent to bypassing censors using independent Internet and mobile phones technology.

Through the shadow network effort, reported yesterday by The New York Times, involves activities such as building a mesh network of suitcase-housed wireless Internet access points. Another $50 million project seeks build an independent mobile phone network in Afghanistan that the Taliban can't shut down, the newspaper reported. A third shadow network, not described as a U.S. project, involves dissidents who bury mobile phones near the North Korea border for surreptitious communications.

Meshes link devices together into a cooperative peer-to-peer network that collectively can transfer data without reliance on central networking equipment. The State Department is funding a $2 million project the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative to create suitcases that can anchor a mesh network that includes modified mobile phones and computers.

The idea, unsurprisingly in light of the role the Internet played in popular movements in Egypt and elsewhere, is to bypass authorities who can restrict information exchange or, as in the case of Egypt, shut it down altogether.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had this statement for the Times:

"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...There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports...So we're focused on helping them do that, on helping them talk to each other, to their communities, to their governments, and to the world."

In Afghanistan, the work involves a Defense Department project called Palisades, the Times said. In it, mobile phone towers on military bases can't be disrupted; ordinary ones have proven vulnerable to Taliban actions to take them out of commission.

Near North Korea dissidents use mobile phones that connect to Chinese phone towers, digging the phones up at night to communicate. Radio Free Asia, a United States-financed broadcaster, uses the technology to help with its broadcasts, the Times reported.