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13 Jun 2011

Messaging under repressive regimes

The New York Times has reported on a state-funded US program to help 'dissidents' establish covert wireless networks and Internet connections without relying on the government-controlled facilities.

There are significant risks with such a venture, including the political issue of being seen to support subversion and destabilization of foreign governments:
"Mrs. Clinton has made Internet freedom into a signature cause. But the State Department has carefully framed its support as promoting free speech and human rights for their own sake, not as a policy aimed at destabilizing autocratic governments.  That distinction is difficult to maintain, said Clay Shirky, an assistant professor at New York University who studies the Internet and social media. “You can’t say, ‘All we want is for people to speak their minds, not bring down autocratic regimes’ — they’re the same thing,” Mr. Shirky said."
Another risk concerns the creation of 'dual use technology' that can equally be used by 'dissidents', criminals, terrorists and other 'subversives' operating within the US or elsewhere.  Tech-savvy criminals surely know by now that regular Internet connections, landline phones, cellphones, radios, computers etc. can be monitored and controlled by the government, police, military forces and/or security services, particularly in the developed world where the authorities have the technical capabilities, resources and (in some cases at least) the legal right and will to snoop on citizens.  The US project risks giving them ideas on how to establish parallel covert comms, networking and messaging capabilities, other than the more obvious use of encryption.

As to whether 'dissidants' would be wise to accept and use a briefcase full of electronics and software supplied by the US and reported by the New York Times, well that's for them to figure out.  I would just say, though, that even gift horses may conceal surprises.

Gary (Gary@isect.com)

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