Internet in a Suitcase to Battle Autocracy

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One thing that became very clear this year as a result of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is that it’s not very difficult for an autocratic government to shut down Internet and cell phone services. This has happened on a large scale in at least Egypt, Syria and Libya. The information vacuum that this creates has enormous negative repercussions on the cohesiveness of dissidents and leaves the general population at the mercy of state media.

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The U.S. government is not happy with this newly found and easily abused political tool, and is investing millions of dollars to create what it calls a ‘shadow’ Internet. The goal is to allow global citizens to totally bypass any country’s bogged down infrastructure and access websites independently without resorting to local Internet service providers.

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One impressive tool designed to do this is the ‘Internet in a suitcase’, which is a small deployable unit that can be used to quickly set up a makeshift network. Its effectiveness is due to an implementation of a powerful networking model called mesh network technology. In this type of network, devices not only communicate with each other, but they also act as relay points for other nodes in the network. It makes having a fixed Internet infrastructure unneccesary and allows for a much more dynamic interconnectivity. Because the network is decentralized, it won't suffer as a whole, if some nodes fail.

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Obviously, distributing this type of technology will be extremely dangerous but many analysts feel that the risks are outweighed by the rewards. Sacha Meinrath, who is leading the ‘Internet in a suitcase’ project at the New America Foundation tells the NY Times, “We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil.”

Photo: Chris Cheadle/All Canada Photos/Corbis

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