The invisible revolution is online
January 30th, 2012
02:01 AM ET

The invisible revolution is online

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."

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Filed under: State Department • Technology
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  15. jonathan gael

    And even with the $70M, there is an unfunded army attempting a real solution, because if you think a software solution is the answer then you're kidding yourself. The solution must be to fix the network architecture at the most fundamental layer because Internet Protocol is not served well by the 802.x class of switch/routers. The Ether2 solution can coexist with 802.x to provide a migration path for legacy devices with full packet encryption including the header. Again, unless the solution includes a broadcast MAC, then there is no other way to provide the highest QoS and strict determinism for carrier class mesh and content distribution.

    February 7, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  16. Benedict

    As one commentator said,the development of such devices is a gray area in it could be used to topple unwanted regimes via the web. However,i wanted to point out that criminal elements outside the more internet-suave countries could use this technology to enhance their illegal businesses!

    February 1, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
  17. j. von hettlingen

    This new hype of cybertechnology no doubt facilitates communication and benefits rights activists who want to circumvent government censorship and intelligence surveillance. How about criminals and terrorists, could they benefit as well?

    January 31, 2012 at 7:10 am | Reply
  18. mipolitic

    well duty and honour are not learned nor can they be willed into a mission. honour is an internal part of the one that carries it proudly and service under authority to a duty for his or her country. geeks may have honour and a duty , but the product of a on techno geek can be based on his own views . this is where caution must come into play. in Canada a geek is charged with spying for russia , and than we have manning turning over , and wacky leaks ass spreading the news to the world ,freind and foe. so lets be careful , if they are in service than they to must have honour in their duty.
    now what would happen if one of these nuts that had access to one of these gov military computer instead of taking info out were to introduce a program that is a product of another country. the geek world is great but they must be a patriot first and geek third or fourth. geeks can cause fire that could take over a year to put out. we are still dealing with wacky leaks because of manning

    January 31, 2012 at 6:02 am | Reply
    • Chickenhawk Newt

      Manning is a true hero. Suck on that!

      January 31, 2012 at 11:09 am | Reply
    • deborah forest hart

      For whatever it is worth, Sascha has long been steeped in the values of the Social Justice movement, and at various levels, has been a community organizer and champion of Independent Media and Net Neutrality. I know him well! He is well aware of the pitfalls.

      February 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  19. george cattel

    It's quite strange how 'Nerds' with programming expertise don't see how their God-like opinions of so-called 'repressive' cultures have been indoctrinated by the Western media.

    Social media played a very big part in bringing 'Democracy' to Libya, even tweeters fed NATO Libyan military co-ordinates to attack. Libyans couldn't 'turn it off' because of infiltration of this technology already on-the-ground in LIbya.

    So now Libyan mothers have to think about school-fees, electricity costs, medical costs, rent, water rates, and have no $12000 yearly government income. Yet, they have Democracy, freedom of thought and opinion but are finding it hard to live on this on a daily basis.

    "Freedom," the World-over is the ability to 'switch things off' if the culture decides. Stopping this "Freedom" is Dictatorial! Er.. the NDAA comes to mind, as does, '9/11; Pearl harbour; Hiroshima, et-alia. Such past information may have been 'switched-off' due to Western culture decisions at that time for whatever reasons?

    I would suggest Sascha Meinrath, for 'conscience reason' has a quick look at:

    Abu Salim massacre was invented:

    1967 Amnesty International Abu Salim report. NO 1270 deaths, NO massacre only SCORES? (They didn't know?)

    The Skull? Abu Salim excavation faked

    The SAME skull was COPIED from: El Salvador

    1984 shooting of a British policewoman organised in the West.

    1986 Berlin disco bombing organised in the West.

    Lockerbie 1988 organised in the West.

    Then wonder if all the data on Syria and Iran is accurate that he / she is using to justify the work.

    But then, Sascha may be, 'coin-operated,' or doesn't realise that once bringing (Western) Democracy to these 'places' the methodology developed can just be 'switched-off' and used against the developers and THEIR country?

    January 31, 2012 at 2:48 am | Reply
  20. Airman

    These geek terrorists will not win. They hate our freedoms, but the TSA has all of these motherfuckers under surveillance and are all in the crosshairs of our drones. When Obama feels the time is right, he will give the order and we just merely push some buttons and wallah !!! problem solved !!!! Not for long Pal !!!! Not for long !!!! See your remains in the graveyard mothefucker !!!!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Reply
    • Gen. MacArthur; Mama's Little Fairy-Boy

      I bet you beat-off to 'Schindler's List'.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:35 am | Reply
    • Iranacockuptheirass

      Hell yeah!!...Thank you Mr. President for killing the modern day Iran( also known as planet of the apes). The desert monkey people must be eliminated. All you other stupid fucks need to wake up. You stop killing them, they come kill you and your mom and your dad and your kids...damn you

      January 31, 2012 at 9:26 am | Reply
  21. balancing cnn's lopsided reporting on iran.

    cnn pulled this article from its front page pretty quickly. probably because the comments section wasnt going their way.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Reply
  22. OrangeW3dge

    useles to mention that the American Congress is working overtime to try control and censor the internet, "for the good of the people", because God told them to.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Reply
  23. linkn8er

    Can anyone see the hypocrisy? If this article is true, the very government trying to censer it's own people (SOPA/PIPA/ACTA) is fighting against it in other countries? Is it because there isn't any money in it? Because Hollywood sees some blockbuster movie in it?
    Is the internet even an essential tool in these uprisings? Maybe, or it's simply something Western media fabricated to make Western culture look better. Seriously, have you ever tried organizing a birthday party on Facebook? On Twitter? I'm not saying it's not possible, but it's not easy.
    Censorship is a horrible, horrible thing, especially on the internet, but America needs to think carefully about how they approach it.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Reply
    • balancing cnn's lopsided reporting on iran.

      america's government is inherently hypocritical where matters of foreign policy are concerned.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Reply
      • Gen. MacArthur; Mama's Little Fairy-Boy

        Careful – you might just piss off the legions of mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging, gawd-and-country-bumpkin, bible-thumping chickenhawks.

        January 31, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  24. Ben

    Speaking of repressive government:, click over and read: Hypocritical too, eh?

    January 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  25. spawn


    January 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  26. spawn

    Like it or not CNN, you no longer represent the audience you think you represent.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Reply
  27. spawn

    This further proves that CNN is just a Democratic Party / Obama shill. A total blackout of the Occupy movement, a total blackout of SOPA & PIPA bill, no talk of NDAA, no talk of operation F&F

    CNN will be the first to debase your "movement" if you go up against the REAL TYRANTS.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • Patriarchae

      What are you talking about? I have my own criticisms of CNN, but to their credit they covered OWS, SOPA/PIPA, and the NDAA far better than most other mainstream news agencies. Pull your head out of your @ss.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Reply
      • spawn

        Oh really? Did they cover the OWS and those godforsaken bills as much as they do cover foreign civil strife?

        January 31, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  28. Frank Finnegan

    What about activists working to free the American people (99 %) from the oppression of the ruling class (1%). How come they never get any press?

    January 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Reply
  29. spawn

    With the help of the United States??? Hahahahah. The No. 1 Target of these online activists (otherwise known as keyboard warriors) is the United States.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Reply
  30. balancing cnn's lopsided reporting on iran.

    i defy CNN to write a positive article on the iranian nation as a whole. regardless of its current government. its advancements sciences are well documented across the west. and not just its nuclear sciences. but medical. general biology. physics. astronomy. iran is the only nation in the region besides israel and maybe turkey to have its own space program. civilian nuclear program (for which there is obvious opposed to that other nuclear program which despite all the still 'alleged'). women at high levels of its government (that ARENT royalty).

    some FACTS <-facts. things that are rarely used in modern big media like CNN:

    -In 2011, world's oldest scientific society and Britain's leading academic institution, the Royal Society in collaboration with Elsevier published a study named "Knowledge, networks and nations" surveying global scientific landscape. According to this survey Iran has the world's fastest growth rate in science and technology. During the period 1996–2008, Iran had increased its scientific output by 18 folds

    -iran is currently 19th and poised to vault to 10th place this year in the world in terms of total medical research output.

    -turkey and iran together produce more than half of the middle east's scientific output.

    and there is much much more. however. despite international recognition as being on the bleeding edge of scientific advancement. CNN and the US government want you to believe that they are a backwards people barely capable of higher level thought. its hard to beat the drums of war when you think the people you're being asked to kill are actually human's worthy of respect. if CNN published one positive article for every negatively lit article the agenda would get no where.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Reply
    • spawn

      Of course, dehumanizing their culture will make them easier to kill.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
    • balancing cnn's lopsided reporting on iran.

      precisely. believe nothing you read or hear from people like CNN or the Government. they couldn't give an unbiased and accurate account of reality if their worthless duplicitous hides depended on it. its like a knee-jerk reaction for these idiots.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • Scott

      Our gov't and educational invented the internet... we bear some responsibility for tyrannts using it to oppress their people. And because we bear that responsibilty for our creation, we owe it to the world the improve the internet so that it can't be used to violate our own principles of freedom and be used to oppress people. Regardless of any scientific progress Iran in making... its gov't is horribly oppressive and its leadership insane. We owe it to iranians to make our creation better so that it can not be used as a weapon against iranians wielded by the iranian gov't.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Reply
    • balancing cnn's lopsided reporting on iran.

      scott. the point is that iran is in fact not 'brutally oppressing' its populalation as badly as the US government is making it out to be. the chinese are guilty of worse sins in tibet on a daily basis. the pursuit of nuclear energy is wholly supported by the population. and why do we look the other way on bahrain? answer: we care nothing for principles. democracy is the flag we tout but we burn it every day. we gave money to saddam when he suited us. to mubarak when he suited us. and to the shah. the last emperor of iran. when he suited us. and guess what. the iranians, egyptians, and iraqis have not forgotten america's duplicity even if the american people have.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  31. Baladi

    come see my revolution in Lebanon

    January 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Reply
  32. Scott

    Any corporation that does business in the US should be required by law to host a proxy server on their webserver and offer for download the application that could be easily made (by the gov't) that would scan for available corporate proxy servers to route traffic (which would get around censoring). Then an oppressive regime would essential have to unplug its entire country from the internet to censor information.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Reply
  33. mipolitic

    perfect ? it would be good if they could eat a burger that we could send them through the web. there must awards for the pursuit of freedom and democracy. talking with keeps them for an hour , giving a poor joe a burger would be like kids with a cookie jar. i have a way of doing this

    January 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Reply
  34. mobria roecker

    This is going to backfire. Remember I told you so America. Whatever goes around comes around. Today for me tomorrow for you. I do not condone tyrants and dictators but to interfere in one's country is so wrong. The people of the country should do this all on their own.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  35. mark longhurst

    the US is willing to provide assistance to this underworld of propaganda but are persecuting the deliverers of TRUTH when they are caught up in it.aka Julian Assange-double standards once again!!

    January 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  36. ali

    miss crawford. you're glaring omission of china, by far and away the longest standing and biggest offender of internet cencorship, is very telling. you paint american efforts as some sort of ethically and morally motivated endeavor to give a voice to the people who just want a little freedom. iran and syria are mentioned as i'm sure CNN is inherently incapable of painting anything about a current american enemy in a positive light. yet. are the people of bahrain benefiting from this noble cause? or do we only hold out our hand when the results favor us as opposed to favor freedom and democracy? the answer is that we will sell out the principles our country is based on quickly. easily. and without shame. bahrain's people are shia and aligned with iran. so no democracy for them. we will continue to park our 5th fleet on their beaches and let the minority brutally repress and oppress the masses. gotta keep the oil flowing right? as for china. well. we cant upset the dragon that owns 20% of our national debt right? show some spine. or stop calling this journalism and start calling it what it is. propaganda. joseph goebbels would be proud.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  37. Omar

    2 Kurdish guys recently came from Iran to live here in Canada. they where really hit by all the freedom we have here. but in the same time the regime in Iran has made ppl to believe that the way they live over there is the good way of life, untill they come here and see the freedoms we have and they see the diffrence. thats why the block the internets and media so they can not see how other countries actually living in this part of the world.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Reply
    • mipolitic

      so omar you are in Canada with two new friends that have never left iran before, i had no idea that things were that censored in todays social media world. wow sad that those people of iran are oppressed that much. if they only knew the truth they would want true freedom. perhaps your freinds should tell their friends back in iran about the true freedom of the USA.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  38. 28mAmerican

    How far does the rabbit hole go 🙂

    January 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  39. Brian

    A very worthy effort which strikes directly at the foundation of all oppressive governments: control over information and communications. Any dictatorship or other oppressive regime depends absolutely on its ability to control what its people see and how they interact. If an effort such as that described in the article can allow citizens of these regimes to access wider ranges of information, share that information with others, and then communicate to decide how to respond to it, far more regimes will ultimately go the way of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and likely Syria and Yemen.

    Certainly, this does have the potential to be a double-edged sword, since these tools could also be used by our enemies to avoid us, the fact that we are making this effort will also cultivate the expertise here at home that will be crucial to any cyber-battlefield in the future.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  40. michaelfury

    January 30, 2012 at 7:22 am | Reply

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