Syrian opposition groups and international aid groups are hustling to figure out a way for Syrian civilians to gain access to the outside world after nearly all Internet -- and possibly cell phone service inside the country went down today.
Many are concerned that this communications blackout is the precursor to a nation-wide massacre by the Assad regime.
"This is the MO of the regime before it storms any given area, they cutoff communications, water, power, before they storm and what always happens is a massacre," Rafif Jouejati, a U.S. representative for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria told Killer Apps today. "The fear is that this is going to be a nationwide storming, if that's possible."
However, "state TV and state supported television are reporting that, on one hand, that it was ‘terrorists' that brought down the Internet and the other story we're hearing [from the official outlets] it that it's a system malfunction and they're working hard to repair it quickly, so the state isn't even coming out with a consistent message," said Jouejati.
Right now, it's impossible to tell for sure who or how the Internet, cell networks and some landlines were cut -- though some reports indicate that a single router handling the majority of Syrian web traffic was taken offline.
"You might have a single Internet exchange point in Damascus that's been shut down, much the same way that Mubarak did [in Egypt, at the height of the protests in Tahrir Square]. Authoritarian regimes often will architect their Internet activity to have a single point of surveillance and monitoring and uplink" that can be easily unplugged, said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Internet in a Suitcase project at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. "The good news, if there is any, is that it probably won't take more than a few days to establish other links into" Syria.
Meinrath doubts the rebels took out the internet connection, "it seems unlikely that such a critical resource would be accessible to the rebels, especially as these systems are often in the heart of the city."
For now, "the workaround is dial up ... and that information is circulating on the Internet, which is not really helpful, but people are able to call to their families [because] not all landlines are down, and of course people with satellite phones are able to get the message so we're trying to spread it as widely as possible," said Jouejati.
The real problem will be if cell phone and landline networks remain down -- then things will become "much tougher and much more dangerous," added Meinrath, who echoed Jouejati's concerns that this is the precursor to a government massacre.
"Right now we know very little, we know that a number of ... servers have been cut off, and we are unable to reach spots that we had access to. I would say we won't know the extent of things for at least another few hours," said Meinrath.
If this was a government act, said Meinrath, "it's a sign that they've identified a crucial resource for democratic organizing and they've attempted to cut it off. They see the Internet as a force multiplier for good and they're working very diligently to make sure that resource is no longer available to the opposition."
The Internet in a Suitcase project is meant to provide people around the world with a secure means of accessing the web in disaster zones or places with severe government monitoring of communications.
"Internet in a Suitcase is built for exactly theses kinds of scenarios," said Meinrath, though he cautioned that his effort is not yet secure enough to ensure that its users will not be monitored by government forces. (Click here to read more about the project whose development was funded by the U.S. State Department.)
While Internet in a Suitcase is still being tested in relatively safe environments, Meinrath's group is in touch with the State Department about a possible deployment to Syria.
"We first put in a proposal to work [in Syria] six months ago, and were turned down," said Meinrath. "We were then invited to submit a statement of interest, which we did two weeks ago. Unfortunately, it's going to be too late to be of use in the current moment."
Meanwhile, the State Deparment says that it has distributed 2,000 secure "communication kits" to the region.
"Yes, we've provided some 2000 communication kits since this effort began. these are all kinds of things - computers, cameras, phones - they are all designed to be independent from and circumvent the Syrian network .... precisely to keep them free from regime tampering, interference and interception," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Here is the statement put out by the Local Coordination Committees on how Syrian residents may access the outside world.
In a move which raises fears that the regime is preparing for something, the criminal Syrian regime cut all communications (cellular networks, landlines and the internet service) in most areas of Damascus, which is the capital, and in its suburbs. In addition, communications were cut in most areas in the governorates of Hama, Homs, Daraa; in all areas in the governorates of Tartous and Swaida; and in some cities in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
The Coordinating Committees hold the regime responsible for any massacres that would be committed in any Syrian cities after such a move was made. Also, they call upon the world to move quickly and to take practical steps to protect civilians from the regime's crimes.
In addition, the Committees would like to remind the Syrian people that it is possible to connect to the internet via the dial-up service:
Dial up access Syria: +46850009990 +492317299993 +4953160941030
password:telecomix OR +33172890150
Additional reporting by David Kenner.
When will rebels, dissidents, and activists be able to safely voice dissent and coordinate their activities online in the face of a government equipped with Western technology designed to snoop on all types of electronic communications? Maybe in as little as a year, according to Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, the man leading the effort to field the so-called Internet in a Suitcase.
Internet in a Suitcase is basically a software program aimed at giving people in conflict or disaster zones the ability to establish a secure, independent wireless network over their computers and cell phones.
While the system (which, despite its name, involves neither hardware nor a suitcase) is being tested and is usable right now, Meinrath and his team of developers around the globe are holding off on releasing it to groups like the Syrian rebels until they are confident that it can resist large-scale hacking by governments.
What "we're now working on is the due diligence and doing an international deployment, not in the world's hot spots but rather in a post-conflict sort of area, maybe a Libya or an Egypt or another location where the benefits would be very great, but the risk to users in case, say, one of the authentication systems or part of the security mechanisms failed, would not be great," said Meinrath during a Nov. 2 interview with Killer Apps.
This will allow the system to be used in the wild and expose any potential weaknesses without exposing users to the wrath of a state security agency.
"Once we [feel] comfortable that the system [is] decently secure, then and only then would we be looking at deploying it to one of the world's hot spots; so a Syria or a North Korea or a China, or a Tehran kind of scenario, that kind of work, and that's probably still a year out from now, "said Meinrath. "Our focus first and foremost is, do no harm."
This means that in the not-too-distant future, rebels, dissident groups, and even disaster workers will be able to use the secure wireless network designed to resist government eavesdropping.
Internet in a Suitcase received a lot of attention earlier this year when it was listed as one of several U.S. government funded projects aimed at providing wireless communications networks for people in conflict zones or places rife with government monitoring of the Internet.
"It's a series of software packages that can run on things like laptops or cell phones, whatever devices happen to be available on the ground -- wifi routers, whatever -- and allows them to communicate directly and securely," said Meinrath. "Instead of having to go through existing infrastructure" that could be downed by a disaster or monitored by a government "you can create alternate infrastructure."
Downloading the project's software would let a rebel or activist use their cell phone or laptop to communicate directly to other users' machines via the devices' wifi chips. Since these ad hoc wifi networks feature no central control system or administrator, they are much more difficult to monitor, according to Meinrath.
"This is a completely ad hoc network, there's no dependency of any device on any other device and that eliminates a central point for command and control surveillance and monitoring," said Meinrath. "We also have authentication between each hop on the network and encryption across each hop."
Basically, data being transmitted is passed through a number of different machines on a network before it reaches its destination. Each of those machines asks the data for information saying that it is trustworthy. Each time the data moves, it is encrypted at multiple levels to protect against someone eavesdropping on the airwaves over which the data moves.
This type of encryption is important since "we assume that a malfeasant power would be able to compromise [a device on the network] or put up their own node into a network of this sort, " said Meinrath.
These mini Internets -- that, in some places where they already exist span entire metro regions -- can host a number of locally developed apps that can do everything from video and audio file sharing to tracking where vehicles and people are.
"Inside that network, things are incredibly fast, often an order of magnitude faster than most people's Internet connections, and the latency is very low, so you can do all sorts of really interesting big broadband kind of services and applications if they're housed locally" on members' computers, smart phones or even a USB stick, said Meinrath.
Even better, all of that connectivity is free since it is completely independent of any Internet or telecomm provider.
"The killer app that I talk with a lot of folks about is, if you have a system like this, there's no reason you would ever need to pay for local phone calls again" once you've downloaded the software allowing your device to join the wifi network, "because you're just pinging machine to machine over a local network," said Meinrath.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.