Financed with a US$ 2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.
The U.S. effort, revealed in dozens of interviews, planning documents and classified diplomatic cables obtained by The New York Times, ranges in scale, cost and sophistication.
Some projects involve technology that the United States is developing; others pull together tools that have already been created by “hackers” in a so-called liberation-technology movement sweeping the globe.
The State Department, for example, is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya, according to participants in the projects.
In one of the most ambitious efforts, United States officials say, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least US$ 50 million to create an independent cell phone network in Afghanistan using towers on protected military bases inside the country.
According to the official rhetoric, the Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push “to defend free speech and nurture democracy.” For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means.
“We see more and more people around the globe using the Internet, mobile phones and other technologies to make their voices heard as they protest against injustice and seek to realize their aspirations,” Mrs. Clinton said in an email response to a query on the topic.
“There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” she said. “So we’re focused on helping them do that, on helping them talk to each other, to their communities, to their governments and to the world.”
Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest “activists” who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border. But others believe that the risks are outweighed by the potential impact.
“We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil,” said Sascha Meinrath, who is leading the “Internet in a suitcase” project as director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.
A translation by: Silke Paez Carr