- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
This Sunday’s New York Times contained an interesting item on U.S. State Department-funded efforts to circumvent Internet censorship abroad. Particularly noteworthy was the description of a brave band of cyberpunk revolutionaries waging a battle for Internet freedom from Farragut North:
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 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 a suitcase.”
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.
Fifth floor on L St? But that’s where we are! The shadow internet is being developed by people who share a kitchen with us? Now we know how those Pakistani military units in Abottabad felt. So who are these shadowy figures:
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 Mr. Meinrath, wearing a tie as the dean of the group at age 37. 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.
After some stealthy reconaissance work (on my way to the coffee machine) I snapped this photo of the group’s compound:
All kidding aside, the whole piece is definitely worth a read. And the folks at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative are doing really interesting and valuable work. We’ll now be keeping a much closer eye on the cubicles across the hall.