Stealth Internet helps get images, messages out of troubled areas, but proves less useful for protests

Analysts say State Department's 'Internet in a suitcase' could be cost-prohibitive for some conflicts.

Advanced technology that keeps dissidents online during state-sponsored Internet blackouts can help the rest of the world stay informed about and engaged in a faraway struggle against an autocratic regime, but it may be less useful at keeping protest movements on track, analysts told Nextgov.

Technology such as the "Internet in a suitcase," touted in a New York Times storyearlier this month, also may be too expensive to deploy widely throughout an extended conflict and could raise significant new questions about data authenticity and security, they said.

The Internet in a suitcase -- which provides access to a stealth Web, via satellite, and is designed to be smuggled into areas where the Internet either has not penetrated or has been shut off by authorities -- is just one of several new State Department-funded tools described by the Times. All are centered on ensuring stable Internet and mobile access for dissidents in autocratic states and helping them circumvent government censorship.

Portable Internet technologies have been in development for a long time, mostly for aid organizations to set up communications in disaster areas where the Web has been knocked out or where there has been low penetration, according to Robert Guerra, director of Freedom House's Project on Internet Freedom.

Earlier versions of the technology, though, were too bulky to be snuck across a porous border and so expensive that few organizations would risk them being confiscated by a hostile regime. The initial devices also were able to carry only small amounts of data -- typically text-only emails between an aid organization's field crew and its home office.

The technology described in the Times would create something like a mobile wireless service spread that would be able to communicate with other stealth devices outside official Internet channels.

Guerra said it's clear some version of this technology already has been deployed in Syria, where YouTube videos and Flickr photos of opposition protests have emerged at the same time Internet service providers and observers on the ground have reported speeds far too slow to handle the high-bandwidth videos.

"One of two things is happening," Guerra said. "Either people have access to satellite Internet or they're shuttling those images to people across the border, say in Lebanon."

Sending images out and who's doing the sending

The Internet in a suitcase device would allow dissidents to keep pushing their images and videos outside national borders even if a largely state-run Internet service had been shut down, as it was in Syria earlier this month. The technology also could allow a small group of dissidents to maintain internal communications.

But the device is probably unable to provide Internet service to a large enough group inside such an area to help organize a mass protest movement, as enthusiasts credit Twitter and other social media with doing during protests following the 2009 Iranian election and the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

"I personally think these tools would be much more effective at getting information out, which is an important element of using social media to protest," said Jillian York, director of the International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But, in terms of actually organizing, it depends on who gets access, how many people and whether they're the right people."

That question of whom to give the expensive, and perhaps proprietary technology to can be exceptionally tricky and the answer likely would come down to old-fashioned human intelligence gathering -- often in short supply in places like Iran, where the United States hasn't had diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage crisis, and Libya, where the United States has had only spotty diplomatic relations for the past few decades.

Several months into funding a NATO bombing campaign in Libya, critics point out the United States still has little idea who the rebels seeking to overthrow Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi are and what their underlying political philosophy is.

Novices, phonies and the long revolution

While the new technology can be designed to be used by people without sophisticated tech savvy, Guerra said, problems may arise after the images and videos themselves are pushed out.

Novices are less likely, for instance, to be able to scrub metadata from photos and videos that could give away their locations to a government snoop, he said, possibly endangering lives.

Another unintended consequence of increased access to images and information from an uprising is that the public, expecting such media, may fall prey to hoaxes and disinformation, Guerra said.

The blog of a purported Syrian lesbian, for instance, which drew significant Web traffic as the country's protest movement gained momentum, turned out to have been written by a married Scottish activist-researcher.

In other cases, an autocratic regime could push out misinformation on its own, Guerra said, seeking to discredit a protest movement.

Another consideration about the long-term viability of stealth Internet technology is the hefty price tag -- about $3,000 per user per month on average for broadband quality capable of rapidly uploading photos and video, Guerra said.

But that may turn out to be a bargain price to transmit conflict images from a months-old Syrian protest movement following years of relatively quiet dictatorship. It's a much trickier proposition, though, to fund such technology to document decades-long, atrocity-filled conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ultimately, Guerra said, new technology is sure to aid protest movements, but it can never be a replacement for the movement itself.

"There's this assumption that just because you have technology, you can protest in the streets and topple a regime," he said. "What we've seen in the past few months is there are a variety of equally important things. There needs to be what we saw in Egypt, as opposed to Libya and Syria -- a community that has the ability to organize online and offline.

"The Internet, in my view and in a lot of people's views, is a catalyst that helps reactions go faster," Guerra added. "But if you have those offline democracy and human rights skills, then it may take weeks or months longer, but you can have a revolution without the Internet. The Berlin Wall fell and there was no one Tweeting that."