Monday, March 21, 2011

Praxis: Unorthodox links to the internet. Savvy techies are finding ways to circumvent politically motivated shutdowns of the internet .

A tip of the boonie hat to Irregular WG for this link.

WITH a tin can, some copper wire and a few dollars’ worth of nuts, bolts and other hardware, a do-it-yourselfer can build a makeshift directional antenna. A mobile phone, souped-up with such an antenna, can talk to a network tower that is dozens of kilometres beyond its normal range (about 5km, or 3 miles). As Gregory Rehm, the author of an online assembly guide for such things, puts it, homemade antennae are “as cool as the other side of the pillow on a hot night”. Of late, however, such antennae have proved much more than simply cool.

According to Jeff Moss, a communications adviser to America’s Department of Homeland Security, their existence has recently been valuable to the operation of several groups of revolutionaries in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. To get round government shutdowns of internet and mobile-phone networks, resourceful dissidents have used such makeshift antennae to link their computers and handsets to more orthodox transmission equipment in neighbouring countries.

Technologies that transmit data under the noses of repressive authorities in this way are spreading like wildfire among pro-democracy groups, says Mr Moss. For example, after Egypt switched off its internet in January some activists brought laptops to places like Tahrir Square in Cairo to collect, via short-range wireless links, demonstrators’ video recordings and other electronic messages. These activists then broadcast the material to the outside world using range-extending antennae.

According to Bobby Soriano, an instructor at the Philippine branch of Tactical Tech, a British organisation that teaches communication techniques to dissidents in five countries, such antennae can even foil government eavesdropping and jamming efforts. Directional antennae, unlike the omnidirectional sort, transmit on a narrow beam. This makes it hard for eavesdroppers to notice a signal is there.

Citizens banned?

Another way of confounding the authorities is to build portable FM radio stations. One broadcasting expert, who prefers not to be named but is currently based in Europe, is helping to develop a dozen such “backpack” radio stations for anti-government protesters in his native land in the Arabian peninsula. Though these stations have a range of only a few kilometres, that is enough for the leaders of a protest to use them to co-ordinate their followers. The stations’ operators act as clearing houses for text messages, reading important ones over the air for everyone to hear.

Conventional radio of this sort cannot, unfortunately, transmit video or web pages. But a group called Access, based in New York, is trying to overcome that. To help democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa get online, it is equipping a network of ham-radio operators with special modems that convert digital computer data into analogue radio signals that their equipment can cope with. These signals are then broadcast from operator to operator until they reach a network member in an area where the internet functions. This operator reconverts the signal into computer-readable data and then e-mails or posts the information online.

Satellites provide yet another way of getting online, though they are expensive to connect to. It is, however, beyond the authorities in most places to shut down a satellite operated by a foreign company or country. The best they can do is try to locate live satellite links using radiation-detection kit similar to that supposedly employed in Britain to seek out unlicensed televisions. The result is a game of cat and mouse between the authorities and satellite-using dissidents. Tactical Tech, for example, has trained dissidents in five countries to rig satellite dishes to computers in order to get online. It advises some users to log on only for short sessions, and to do so from a moving vehicle.

Such dishes can also be repurposed for long-range internet connections that do not involve satellites. Yahel Ben-David, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who has designed secret cross-border links to the internet for people in several countries, does so by adding standard USB dongles designed for home Wi-Fi networks. Thus equipped, two properly aligned dishes as much as 100km apart can transmit enough data to carry high quality video. Moreover, the beam is so tightly focused that equipment a mere dozen metres away from its line would struggle to detect it.

Creative ideas for circumventing cyber-attacks even extend to the redesign of apparently innocent domestic equipment. Kenneth Geers, an American naval-intelligence analyst at a NATO cyberwar unit in Tallinn, Estonia, describes a curious microwave oven. Though still able to cook food, its microwaves (essentially, short radiowaves) are modulated to encode information as though it were a normal radio transmitter. Thus, things turn full circle, for the original microwave oven was based on the magnetron from a military radar. From conflict to domesticity to conflict, then, in a mere six decades.


Dakota said...

This is exactly what I have been yelling about. We need a "Geek Squad" that knows how the system works and how to ...... "tweak it" .... and how to train others.

Anonymous said...

With the right gear you can go long distances ...

I used to run a rig in my truck that would allow me to work off of a cell tower in the Chicago area from the Never Summer mountains in Wyoming. (This was back when cell was analog and just getting started).

There is also satellite (go download gpredict from

Ham radio works wonders with repeaters (set up usually with a solar panel in the back of beyond).

In the ME there are multiple providers with sat phone service ... thuriya has a setup that allows you to automatically swtich from cell to sat when you roam out of the coverage area (or the egyptian government shuts down the cell service).

Anyway lots of ways out there ...

aughtsix said...

"You can't stop the signal."

Just thought I'd be the first!


fgd-anchorage said...

Heh! Bugs (the squishy, crunchy, kind - not the kind found in computers) have antennae. Radios and other wireless equipment have antennas.

Anonymous said...

Problem is that Ham radio is infested with government jock sniffers who just love to rat each other out to the FCC. Try to slip in an encrypted message across normal Ham freq's and they will track you down and rat you out quicker than shit. They love to force their rules but dont respect others rules in return. Civil Air Patrol tries to keep its radio freq's hush hush in order to keep a level of privacy. The Hams publish those freq's every chance they get.
Yes to thee but not for me!



Anonymous said...

Befriend a geek at a small telco - even odds there's a crypto libertarian in the ranks looking for your unit, but doesn't yet know it...

Dick's Dad said...

Wow, thanks Mike.

My local geek says there is a way of using an empty tin as a directional antennae, to log onto unsecured office wifi networks and get internet for free, or at least anonymously.

I'll forward the link to him and call round for a morning coffee one of these days.

Are there any hacks for using hspa dongles to talk to each other, without needing a tower? We've all got spare dongles here since we all got sick of the old provider throttling the connection and went over to dish receivers for another provider's tower.

It would be handy if we could mesh mobile phones too, and do away with the crappy "service" provider.

Anonymous said...

Look boys, heres the deal.

Take a long HARD LOOK at ALE. No its not beer. Doesnt need encryption, and is as secure as HAM radio gets.

The capabilities of a good HAM operator are amazing, and it isnt about encryption, with the right antenna you dont NEED encryption. Learn the capabilities of a system before you condemn it, you might actually desire to get a licence.

Anonymous said...

"With the right gear you can go long distances"

With a 30+ yr old HF radio and an old 1Ghz P3 computer, I send text and images vast distances.
I send stuff to South America and Europe, from here in the US, with as little as 15 watts on a regular basis.
Have a look at these....

Anonymous said...

I have also seen where a microwave oven can be dissected to create a beam weapon which doesn't respect non metallic armor. Probably isn't pc to mention such awful things. Also want to be exceedingly careful to avoid backsplatter. Probably good to use the old door screen from the oven to look through to avoid getting an eyeful.

Anonymous said...

and now, for something completely different:

"CAMPINAS, Brazil — On the night of March 8, cruising 22,000 miles above the Earth, U.S. Navy communications satellite FLTSAT-8 suddenly erupted with illicit activity. Jubilant voices and anthems crowded the channel on a junkyard's worth of homemade gear from across vast and silent stretches of the Amazon: Ronaldo, a Brazilian soccer idol, had just scored his first goal with the Corinthians.


Much of this country's geography is remote, and beyond the reach of cellphone coverage, making American satellites an ideal, if illegal, communications option. The problem goes back more than a decade, to the mid-1990s, when Brazilian radio technicians discovered they could jump on the UHF frequencies dedicated to satellites in the Navy's Fleet Satellite Communication system, or FLTSATCOM. They've been at it ever since."