The government is countering the Assad regime in Syria and the
mullahs in Iran with an entirely different weapon...transparency.
According to the Guardian
newspaper, a year-long not-so-secret project has been underway in a
nondescript building on D.C.'s L Street aimed at undermining the controls that
countries like Syria and Iran impose on Internet activists. And the tools the
staff uses are rooted just as much in the internet's need for openness as it is
in activist-justified reasons for self-preservation.
Codenamed Commotion Wireless, the project aims to make code
available to Internet activists, enabling them to create stealthy "mesh
networks" so they can communicate with each other without fear of
interception from state security services, access delay-tolerant Twitter apps
that allow users to publish censored Tweets on the wider Internet for all
to see, and even erase data on cell phones in case they are detained by
security forces--or something much worse.
"Everything is completely open--all the code,
everything," said Sascha Meinrath, who runs the project at the New
America's Foundation's think tank in D.C., in an interview with the Guardian's
The unprecedented openness even extends to email
correspondence with self-described activists and sympathizers in the Middle
East, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, many of whom, staffers are confident, are
actually cyber spies for various intelligence services in countries as far
flung as North Korea, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
And weirdly enough, Meinrath is happy to oblige them.
"If it's a really good question, we'll put it on our
frequently asked questions page," he said. "Hard questions help us
The strategy isn't the brainchild of a pie-in-the-sky
activist. It's the culmination of years
of successes and public failures that have caused the federal government, particularly
the State Department, to rethink how it combats Internet censorship.
During the 2009 Green Revolution protests in Iran which
rocked the regime there, a little known programmer, Austin Heap, wrote a code
that would have allowed dissidents to circumvent the regime's "halal
internet" that blocked access to sites like The New York Times, The
Washington Post, and other media outlets. Codenamed Haystack (as in "needle in
a"), Heap's code was endorsed by the State Department with fanfare.
The Guardian later awarded him with a prize for innovation,
edging out Twitter--the social network of choice for Internet activists in Iran
at the time. But as the protests turned violent, and footage of murdered
protesters was beamed throughout the globe, there was a backlash against
Haystack and Heap in particular. As it
turned out, Iranian intelligence services were able to exploit a flaw in Heap's
code, allowing them to detain--and possibly kill--many of the activists who
Pro-democracy activists panned haystack and Heap received
numerous death threats via Twitter and his phone. He required 24/7 police
More recently, as Syria's crackdown on Internet activists
has intensified, activists in that country have unearthed a treasure trove of
documents connecting private Western surveillance companies to the Assad
regime. When allegations surfaced that
Blue Coat software was being used by Syrian security forces to access the IP
addresses of Internet activists who were blogging in cafes and coffee houses
across the country, Telecomix--the company who made the software--suddenly
found itself at the heart of a months-long debate about the human rights,
Internet freedom and America's commitment to democracy.
The U.S. State Department later waded into the issue,
initiating an investigation into Telecomix's activities in Syria around the
time the IP addresses were discovered.
With that history in mind, Commotion Wireless wants to do
anything it can to avoid allegations that they are putting internet activists'
lives at risk--even if it means letting a few bad apples inspect its very
public computer codes.
"It's just good sense," Meinrath describes the
project's open-door policy. "The history is when we [the government] have
done those things--it's been very bad!"
Even so, officials in Iran have gone public about their
hatred of Commotion. When Commotion was
profiled by The New York Times last year, Heidar Mosleshi, Iran's Intelligence
Minister, went so far as to say openly that the state had devised ways to
sabotage the project.
Instead of instilling fear though, Mosleshi had inadvertently
done the opposite.
"We got flooded with hundreds of messages from people
in Iran wanting to know how to download it," Meinrath said. "He did more to spread word about our
technology than anything we ever could have done."
Such is the way of the Internet. Shut down a website here, and a mirror pops
up somewhere else. Crash a site with
traffic, only to see it emerge as even more popular later. The phenomenon even has a name, the Streisand Effect, which stems from attempts by actress-singer Barbara
Streisand to suppress photographs of her home being put on the Internet and in
so doing, made the photos even more heavily sought and viewed.
In the end, 'weaponizing' social media--as NYU Professor Clay
Shirky puts it--may be a pipe dream as future threats to the Internet
emerge--not just from rogue states, but also multi-national corporations, for
whom an open Internet is as much a threat to their bottom line as it is to the
stability of autocratic regimes like North Korea's.
"The real threat isn't from Iran saying we're going to
disconnect and build an alternative Internet--that's a desperate act,"
Shirky said. "The real threat comes from the MPAA and our allies. We
should be much more worried about what's going on in South Korea than North