Belmont Club

WiFi in the Sky

Wired describes US equipment that can “force the Internet” on a country using a flying mobile router that will light up any wireless network in its path. It is one several information weapons in the US arsenal, some of which include airborne radio stations, cell phone towers in the sky and similar devices. It is even possible to deliver certain services from orbit, via satellite.  These devices are a dollar-value assertions of the potential of information warfare.

The U.S. military has no shortage of devices — many of them classified — that could restore connectivity to a restive populace cut off from the outside world by its rulers. It’s an attractive option for policymakers who want an option for future Egypts, between doing nothing and sending in the Marines. And it might give teeth to the Obama administration’s demand that foreign governments consider internet access an inviolable human right.

Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, spent years urging the military to logic-bomb adversary websites, disrupt hostile online presences, and even cause communications blackouts to separate warring factions before they go nuclear. What the military can turn off, he says, it can also turn on — or at least fill dead airspace.

Consider the Commando Solo, the Air Force’s airborne broadcasting center. A revamped cargo plane, the Commando Solo beams out psychological operations in AM and FM for radio, and UHF and VHF for TV. Arquilla doesn’t want to go into detail how the classified plane could get a denied internet up and running again, but if it flies over a bandwidth-denied area, suddenly your Wi-Fi bars will go back up to full strength.

These weapons would allow the United States to selectively deny and allow information flows in a given country; they would permit people coordinate actions and spread ideas at the speed of modern communications while preventing potentially hostile forces from doing the same thing.  It is an action so important it could be interpreted as a hostile act. Recently, an Egyptian employee of Google who claimed that “he was behind the Facebook page that helped spark what he called ‘the revolution of the youth of the Internet,'” was allegedly accused of treason by Egyptian authorities.

Just hours after being freed, Dubai-born Wael Ghonim sobbed throughout a television interview as he described how he spent 12 days in detention blindfolded. He insisted he had not been tortured and said his interrogators treated him with respect.

“This is the revolution of the youth of the Internet and now the revolution of all Egyptians,” he said, adding that he was taken aback when the security forces holding him branded him a traitor.

“Anyone with good intentions is the traitor because being evil is the norm,” said Ghonim, 30, an Egyptian who oversees Google’s marketing in the Middle East and Africa.

These stories underscore the potential power of information weapons in the modern world, weapons that are in search of a doctrine of employment. While it is hard to imagine the US Government unleashing Commando Solo on a foreign country, private corporations and groups are far less constrained. What uses might they put it to? Perhaps the better question is what uses have they already put it to. In the previous post, I wrote in connection with the Egyptian Sandmonkey’s post describing the role of the Internet in events there that:

online tools have already played a major role in the Egyptian drama, as they did to a lesser extent in the Iranian unrest against the ayatollahs. That is an historical fact. To assume online tools are a fad is as dangerous as battleship admirals thinking airplanes are a fad. The balance of probability is that online tools will play a bigger, not a smaller, prospective role. Far from being a fluke, the role of self-organization in Egypt may simply be a harbinger of things to come throughout the region.

And fortunately for America, this action is happening in the one place where the USA is still unquestionably the champion of the world; the one place where access to actual participants is possible, though on a distributed basis. If there is one single thing that the American political and developer community can do to affect the course, not only of the Egyptian revolution but of changes in the Third World to come, it will be to act in this sphere. What’s to be lost in trying?

There is a curious reluctance in the West to tout the virtues of democracy and freedom with anything like the vigor with which bath soap, toothpaste or fast-food fried chicken are routinely promoted.  It seems far easier to believe that the rest of the world wants to rid themselves of body odor than tyranny. And in the end the political revolution in the Third World may be driven more by “pull” than “push”, as people take what they want even though the West doesn’t know why they want it.


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