By Jamie Crawford
Guided by an army of "geeks with a conscience," a network of digital activists, working mostly in the shadows, is emerging to challenge the restrictions of repressive governments around the world.
Sascha Meinrath is part of that army.
Working with a team of tech experts inside a nondescript building in downtown Washington, Meinrath is developing new technologies that could one day be used to evade government censors and secret police. "You can imagine any of the world's hot spots, and we have been contacted by people there," he told CNN.
With governments in Iran, Syria, Cuba and elsewhere around the world trying to clamp down on freedom of expression both in public and online, the march is on to put a stop to it.
Since coming into office, the Obama administration has actively supported the construction of detours around Internet censors in repressive environments like Iran and Syria, thereby enabling activists to communicate with each other, and organize, without the threat of surveillance by the very governments they are trying to subvert.
The administration has issued more than $70 million worth of grants to nongovernmental organizations developing technologies to assist activists inside repressive countries to stay connected, regardless of government efforts to keep them silent.
"The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs - these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during an address on Internet freedom last year.
"The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace," Clinton said. "In our time, people are as likely to come together to pursue common interests online as in a church or a labor hall."
Recognizing there is no one silver bullet that will work around the world, the State Department is currently supporting the development of more than 20 different circumvention technologies. It has also funded research on the degree of repression and the tactics used online by different countries.
To date, the program has trained nearly 8,000 activists around the world.
The program has evolved from circumventing government Internet firewalls to developing mobile-based technologies that can be used on cell phones and other portable devices that are much more difficult to monitor.
Meinrath's team is developing one such technology, partially financed the State Department.
The biggest challenge, he said, is developing a user-friendly format.
"A lot of the technologies are phenomenal, they just aren't useful to non-geeks," said Meinrath, who directs the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization.
Once activated and ready for deployment to the field, a team such as Meinrath's will meet with digital activists around the world to train them on the technology.
Their latest project, called Commotion, relies on "mesh network" technology that turns a cell phone or computer into a wireless network without being connected to a large centralized hub that could be easily be monitored by a government.
Users of the technology could theoretically send messages between devices loaded with the software, each device acting as its own node or "cell tower" and therefore bypassing any official government network. The more people use it, the more nodes appear and the network multiplies.
The program would be downloaded directly to a phone or computer without replacing the current operating system.
"The goal is to create as many different vectors for people to download this," Meinrath said. "So you could share it via Bluetooth between two devices and now that becomes your way to swap the software from one device to multiple devices."
Developing a secure infrastructure for the technology that can be trusted by those who use it is a key part of the process.
Meinrath's team is "pulling together a lot of unusual suspects" from research labs and even the hacker community to devise a way to keep it secure in repressive environments.
Josh King, a member of the Commotion team, said security is "challenging from a design standpoint because it has to be decentralized and protected from threats both inside and outside the network."
Until security of the software is assured, the program will not be deployed for use for fear of unnecessarily putting someone's life at risk, Meinrath said.
For its part, the State Department touts the program as promoting freedom of speech and human rights, rather than a tool aimed at destabilizing autocratic regimes around the world.
"It's human rights and democracy on the cheap," said a State Department official who spoke on background due to sensitivity of the subject. "Its cheaper to be able to give (digital activists) the tools to be able to do their work effectively than it is to spend years trying to get one or two of them out once they have gotten locked up."
Analysts who follow issues of Internet freedom around the world say that distinction is tough to maintain in practice.
"It's delving into a gray area," Rob Faris with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University told CNN.
Faris said such programs could open the door for charges of hypocrisy directed at United States through its maintaining of support for autocratic countries on the diplomatic front, while supporting technology that is likely to undermine them.
Regardless of that, Meinrath and his team say they believe in what they are doing.
"We do believe communications is a fundamental human right," he said. "We're driven by that underlying social justice agenda."