OWS: ISPs, Spies, Snitches and Solutions Courtesy of the State Department
Snitchjacketing refers to an agent calling someone an informant or a “snitch” to ruin that person’s reputation. The FBI uses real informants to plant evidence on people, then create a witch-hunt. It makes it difficult for those referred to as snitches, who are in-fact not snitches, to work within the movement because the group is wary of such a rumor possibly being true.
OWS: “You Are Being Watched” is an Understatement
Like many children of my generation, I ate school lunches from
plastic trays lined up tightly against each other on folding tables in
the school gym. As we ate, teachers milled about. Their job was to keep
an eye out for any sign of raucous or anti-social behavior. As we got
older, enterprising classmates learned to exploit the situation for
their own ends.
A favorite trick of one of my more clever seatmates was to break the
monotonous conversation–sixth graders are generally still not expert in
entertaining small talk–with an excited phrase like, “Watch out! Here
comes Miss Robinson!” And as I, like most of my companions, would turn
to locate the imposing woman with the red beehive hairdo, he would
swiftly move a chunk of government surplus cheddar from my tray to his
Though most people don’t realize it, the technique of my enterprising
sixth grade classmate is a key pillar of the US establishment’s
strategy to keep a potentially restive population in position of
generally docile compliance before its increasingly illiberal policies.
Last week the New York Times published a long article about how the
US State Department is developing systems designed to allow dissidents
in other countries to circumvent government-imposed controls on the free
flow of information through the internet, and social networks such as
Facebook and Twitter.
The authors of the piece, James Glanz and John Markoff, describe in a
tone of groupie-like awe, how a group of hip young technology
contractors is working with the full support of Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton to develop an “internet in a suitcase”, technology that,
when placed in the hands government critics in repressive places like
Iran, Syria, Libya and Venezuela, will allow them to continue to
organize and resist the diktats of their overlords. As the prime
architect of the program puts it in the article: “The implication is
that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s
fundamental human right to communicate”.
I think we can all agree that helping people pursue their
“fundamental human right to communicate” is great and admirable stuff.
The problem resides not in the fact that State Department is promoting
this, or that the media is reporting on it, but rather in the way both
parties frame the problem of government interference in the free
communication between citizens.
Shaping citizen perceptions of the broad world they inhabit–and do
not think for a moment that the branches of government dealing with
foreign affairs are not obsessively concerned with this–involves many
things. And what is described or reported in declarative sentences is
only one small element of this process.
Of equal or greater importance in many cases, is what is not said, or
to put it another way, what is silently assumed to be true.
Reading the article in question, it is clear that both the US
government and the Times reporters view control of citizen communication
as a problem that exists primarily, if not exclusively, in other
places. Also assumed is the notion that our government would never want
to watch over its people the way governments in those “bad places” do.
Oh, if only it were so. The truth is so much more complicated and
sad. In fact, at a time when agents of public diplomacy and their pliant
mouthpieces in the press are directing our collective gaze to the
problems of information control in other places, the US government is
moving quite swiftly and deliberately to circumscribe our “fundamental
right to communicate” without interference.
You think I am exaggerating? Well, consider these things:
–We know from both the reporting of James Risen and the testimonies
of the ATT whistleblower Mark Klein that the major telecom companies
have, since the early years of the Bush Administration, granted the
government virtually unlimited access to the phone and internet
communications of millions of American citizens. And despite the
widespread impression among liberals that Obama has taken care of the
problem, there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. Indeed,
his Administration’s aggressive stance against allowing litigants to
engage in discovery and redress in any matters related to this type of
surveillance gives us every reason to believe these practices continue
–According to NSA whistle-blower Russell Tice, the NSA regularly
rummages through the private phone calls, emails and credit cards of
millions of Americans in a single year in search of “suspicious”
activities or patterns.
–We know that the practice of using National Security Letters,
documents that grant the FBI virtually unlimited access to the personal
records of American citizens (completely unbeknownst to that same
citizen) is completely out of control. This legal device, one of the
several “neat” law enforcement “gifts” contained in the recently renewed
Patriot Act, has facilitated the invasion of privacy thousands and
thousands of completely innocent Americans. Though FBI director Mueller
admitted these problems as early as 2007, we have no clear indication
of how, if at all, these problems have been resolved. As far as we
know, no citizen has been compensated for having the intimate details of
their lives spread out on a screen before a team of FBI agents. The
stark fact is that the Government still has, through this device, the
virtually unlimited and completely unchecked (in the sense of not having
to answer to any meaningful oversight) ability to “go after” the most
personal details of the lives of any American citizen.
–Last summer Joe Lieberman introduced legislation to give the
President of the US the authority to shut down all or part of the
internet in the event of a “national emergency”. Since then the scope of
the President’s powers under the bill has been somewhat diminished.
However, it still grants the Chief Executive sweeping powers over the
functioning of the internet should he, and he virtually alone, decide
that the country is immersed in a “National Emergency”.
When faced with information such as this, one of the more common
reactions of people, especially liberals, is: “Don’t exaggerate! You
can’t compare these programs, which are designed to protect us, with
programs in other places aimed at repressing the citizenry. That’s like
comparing apples and oranges.”
People who respond like this obviously don’t know much about history,
or the rhetoric of repressive regimes. Virtually all of them have
repressed their people in the name of security and/or stability.
Nor, I suspect, do they know much about the recent campaign by people
in the government with virtually unlimited access citizen personal
data, to “go after” the esteemed bloggers Juan Cole and Glenn Greenwald
because these people forcefully advocated positions that undermined the
policy claims and plans of high-level government officials. And these
are only the most recent and well-known cases.
Should we arrive at a point when the stakes involved with policing
dissident thought become larger in the minds of government officials, do
you really think they will curb their appetite for controlling the
shape of public discourse through slander or the “strategic release” of
unflattering personal facts?
So the next time the NYT or any other establishment outlet tells you
about how we, with our love of liberty, are helping benighted people in
other places achieve freedom, enjoy the story. But then do some research
about how the situation over there really differs from the situation
here. In other words, do your best to keep your eyes trained on the
plastic lunch tray before you
The following is the oriiginal NYTimes article
US funds secret ‘internet in a suitcase’ for
James Glanz and John Markoff
Egyptian anti-government bloggers work on their
laptops from Cairo’s Tahrir square in February. Photo: AFP
The 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 mobile phone networks inside other 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 a suitcase”.
Financed with a $US2 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
The US 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
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 such as Iran,
Syria and Libya, according to participants in the projects.
In one of the most ambitious efforts, US officials say,
the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least $US50 million to
create an independent mobile phone 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
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 the Voice of America and
More recently, Washington has supported the development
of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places such as
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. US diplomats are meeting operatives who have been
burying Chinese mobile phones 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 diplomatic cables.
The new initiatives have found a champion in Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, whose department is spearheading the US effort.
“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 realise their
aspirations,” Clinton said in an email response to a query on the topic.
“There is a historic opportunity to effect positive
change – change America supports,” she said. “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.”
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 non-partisan research group.
“The implication is that this disempowers central
authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to
communicate,” 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 barista. Thomas
Gideon was an accomplished hacker. Dan Meredith, a bicycle polo
enthusiast, helped companies protect their digital secrets.
Then there was Meinrath, wearing a tie as the dean of the
group at age 37. He has a masters degree in psychology and helped set
up wireless networks in underserved communities in Detroit and
The group’s suitcase project will rely on a version of
“mesh network” technology, which can transform devices such as mobiles
or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a
centralised hub. In other words, a voice, picture or email message could
hop directly between the modified wireless devices – each one acting as
a mini mobile “tower” and phone – and bypass the official network.
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 lsuch
as ethernet cables.
The project will also rely on the innovations of
independent internet and telecommunications developers.
“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. Kaplan has set
up a functioning mesh network in Vienna and says related systems have
operated in Venezuela, Indonesia and elsewhere.
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 specialises 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,” 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 website, estimates
that 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 beam information discreetly – a video, an electronic business
card – directly from one mobile phone to another.
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
By the end of 2011, the State Department will have spent
some $US70 million on circumvention efforts and related technologies,
according to department figures.
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 destabilising autocratic governments.
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,”
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 such as
Saudi Arabia or Bahrain while deploying technology that was likely to
Shadow mobile phone system
In February 2009, Richard Holbrooke and Lieutenant
General John Allen were taking a helicopter tour over southern
Afghanistan and getting a panoramic view of the mobile phone towers
dotting the remote countryside, according to two officials on the
By then, millions of Afghans were using mobile phones,
compared with a few thousand after the 2001 invasion. Towers built by
private companies had sprung up across the country.
The United States had promoted the network as a way to
cultivate goodwill 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, Allen told 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 6pm until 6am, presumably to enable the Taliban to
carry out operations without being reported to security forces.
The Pentagon and State Department were soon collaborating
on the project to build a “shadow” mobile phone 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 mobile towers placed on
protected US 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 US official said the towers were close to being
up and running in the south and described the effort as a kind of 9/11
system that would be available to anyone with a mobile phone.
By shutting down mobile phone service, the Taliban had
found a potent strategic tool in its asymmetric battle with US and
Afghan security forces.
The United States is widely understood to use mobile
phone 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, Lieutenant Colonel John
Dorrian, a spokesman for the US-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
He said the project was being carried out in
collaboration with the Afghan government in order to “restore 24/7
“As of yet the program is not fully operational, so it
would be premature to go into details,” Dorrian said.
Dorrian declined to release cost figures. Estimates by US
military and civilian officials ranged widely, from $US50 million to
$US250 million. A senior official said that Afghan officials, who
anticipate taking over US bases when troops pull out, have insisted on
an elaborate system.
“The Afghans wanted the Cadillac plan, which is pretty
expensive,” the official said.
Broad subversive effort
In May 2009, a North Korean defector named Kim met
officials at the US Consulate in Shenyang, a Chinese city about 190
kilometres from North Korea, according to a diplomatic cable. Officials
wanted to know how 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 mobile phones “on hillsides for
people to dig up at night”.
Kim said Dandong, China, and the surrounding Jilin
Province “were natural gathering points for cross-border cell phone
communication and for meeting sources”.
The mobile phones are able to pick up signals from towers
in China, said Libby Liu, head of Radio Free Asia, the US-financed
broadcaster, who confirmed their existence and said her organisation
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. From the activist geeks on L Street in Washington to
the military engineers in Afghanistan, the global appeal of the
technology hints at the craving for open communication.
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 Benghazi.
“Internet is in dire need here. The people are cut off in
that respect,” wrote Sahad, who had never been to Libya before the
uprising and is now working in support of rebel authorities. Even so, he
said, “I don’t think this revolution could have taken place without the
existence of the World Wide Web.”
The New York Times
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