Syrian rebels on a scouting mission in Northern Syria, via Freedom House Flickr.
Two years ago, news of the "internet in a suitcase" was making waves. Open Technology Initiative researchers at the New American Foundation, working on a $2 million government grant, began packaging stealth, wireless "mesh" networks inside innocuous suitcases. This, and other types of technological anti-censorship, countersurveillance work-arounds such as Tor, Green Simurgh, and Ultrasurf would allow rebels in Iran, Libya, and Syria to communicate with each other and the outside world.
Now, the US State Department, through the Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS), is once again publicly touting its delivery of hardware and software solutions to Syrian rebels. In total, $25 million is being dumped into the Syrian revolution for this purpose via the State Department's Middle East Partnership Iniative and the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization. State Department Internet Freedom Grants are also doled out to software developers interested in helping dissidents worldwide. And, according to Time magazine, the US is even teaching dissidents communication security by way of non-profits such as the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and Freedom House.
Perhaps they could spend a little money teaching Americans about internet security? Nah, too much to ask.
The irony of the US government's anti-surveillance efforts in Syria, as it defends its NSA surveillance programs in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's leaks, should not be lost on anyone. But, hell, maybe we should be encouraged that at least some of the world's population should be free of Big Brother's prying eyes.
The US government's anti-surveillance and internet freedom efforts were originally launched in 2008 by Michael Horowitz, a religious liberty activist. Horowitz suggested to his friend, Rep. Frank Wolf, that congress should fund the Falun Gong's (a religiously dissident group) efforts to circumvent the Great Firewall of China. Congress agreed to the funding to the tune of $15 million, but very little of it was ultimately spent (US has business with China, you know). Hoeever it did lay the groundwork for what we've seen over the last few years in Iran, Syria, Libya and elsewhere: anti-censorship, surveillance-busting hardware and software making its way to dissident groups. Syria is now ground zero for this type of US-sponsored, subversive internet activity.
The main issue here is one of principle: how can the US government so publicly support anti-surveillance technologies abroad, while carrying out programs like the NSA's PRISM on a global scale?
But we shouldn't become too fixated on the history of US efforts in this realm. Instead, Edward Snowden's NSA leaks should have set this internet freedom hypocrisy in stark relief. Sadly, they have not. No one so much as bats an eye at the cognitive dissonance and contradictions running parallel in the US's telecommunications policies. Now, one can say that a lot of this hardware (mesh networks via mobile phones, for example) and software (Tor) is available to Americans, and that would be true. But hat is irrelevant in the final analysis.
The main issue here is one of principle. How can the US government so publicly support anti-surveillance technologies abroad, while carrying out programs like the NSA's PRISM on a global scale? As a country, we need to ask this question, and demand answers.
And who is to say that all this hardware and software aren't going to fall into the wrong hands in Syria, disrupting US anti-terrorist efforts that were, we were told, the very reason for the NSA surveillance programs in the first place? Maybe US officials already considered that possibility, and installed their own backdoors. Perhaps the cost-benefit analysis was favorable to the US, confident that the NSA would remain at the cutting edge of surveillance technology.
Sascha Meinrath, leader of the Open Technology Initiative's "internet in a suitcase" project, said in the New York Times in 2011, “We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil... The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate."
Well said. And I wish that this human right were true in times of peace as in times of war and revolution.