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State Department Subsidizes Disruptive Tech for 'Freedom to Connect'

BY Nick Judd | Monday, June 13 2011

From the in-case-you-missed-it department, the New York Times on Sunday prominently featured a dive into the world of "liberation technology" — hacked-together solutions to avoid or subvert control of communications networks:

The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”

Financed with a $2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.

Why is the State Department funding this work? If you'll recall, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has staked out "freedom to connect" as a pillar of State's work around the globe.

This story is the tip of a large, geeky iceberg. At Personal Democracy Forum 2011 last week, one of the conversations I was in focused on the increasing feasibility of a technology called openBTS — an open-source application that allows the user to stand up a cellular network compatible with existing handsets, using only cheap and reasonably easy-to-get tools. There's some background on this being one of the tech frameworks underlying what the group mentioned in the Times, which includes the Open Technology Initiative's Sascha Meinrath, is doing.

Don't be surprised if the pecularities of individual technologies like OpenBTS, or the work of the Guardian Project, which is building activist-facing technology for mobile phones, become increasingly important to a wider audience.