In the Sunday New York Times front-page story on “shadow” internet and mobile phone networks being deployed abroad by the State Department, it may have been easy to miss that the New America Foundation has a major role in the endeavor.
With only a quick mention in a long article, it would have been easy to lose that it’s the think tank’s project, the Open Technology Initiative (OTI), that is responsible for developing the “Internet in a briefcase” technology that would allow dissidents to circumvent the restrictions of repressive regimes around the world by making internet networks portable across borders--literally in a suitcase.
The young men at OTI (all are men except one, according to the website’s staff page), have developed the suitcase that “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 like Ethernet cables.”
However, “Internet in a suitcase” is not a perfect solution, according to the Times article:
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 nonpartisan research group.
“The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate,” Mr. Meinrath added.
The group has proven to be one of the leaders in the application of mesh networking, which allows users to connect directly to one another instead of a central hub that could be an unreliable conduit.
According to the Times article, the State Department issued a $2 million grant for the suitcase project, but in Washington terms, that sounds underfunded for such an ambitious project.