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Cyberwar: U.S. Has Secret Tools to Force Internet on Dictators

Posted on: February 8, 2011

When Hosni Mubarak shut down Egypt’s internet and cellphone communications, it seemed that all U.S. officials could do was ask him politely to change his mind. But the American military does have a second set of options, if it ever wants to force connectivity on a country against its ruler’s wishes.

There’s just one wrinkle. “It could be considered an act of war,” says John Arquilla, a leading military futurist.

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.

“We have both satellite- and nonsatellite-based assets that can come in and provide access points to get people back online,” Arquilla says. “Some of it is done from ships. You could have a cyber version of pirate radio.”

Then there are cell towers in the sky. The military already uses its aircraft as communications relays in places like Afghanistan. Some companies are figuring out upgrades: FastCom, an effort led by the defense firm Textron, is a project that hooks up cellular pods to the belly of a drone, the better to keep cellular and data connections in the air without pilot fatigue. Underneath the drones, a radius of a few kilometers on the ground would have 3G coverage.

Sharon Corona, a spokeswoman for the project, says that there’s an obstacle to using a technology like FastCom for an Egypt-like situation: The recipient devices need to be able to talk with the cell and data signal. But compliant phones or netbooks — small and lightweight — could conceivably be smuggled into a denied area.

Alternatively, operatives could smuggle small satellite dishes into a country. Small dishes were crucial to getting the internet back running in Haiti after last year’s earthquake. It’s how cameramen in war zones rapidly transmit high quality video from the middle of nowhere.

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