Information Warfare: Give Until It Hurts

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September 25, 2016: North Korea is threatening to uses its new nuclear weapons on the United States if the Americans don’t halt their aggression against North Korea. This aggression is manifested in many ways and one that is mentioned frequently is the American support for illegal (according to North Korea) tools to give people free access to the Internet.

This effort is not new, but the United States does not give it a lot of publicity. There are good reasons for this modesty. For example since 2001 the United States has been very active in supporting the hacker community efforts to keep the Internet accessible for all users in countries, especially places like Iran, Cuba and North Korea. These efforts have not been as successful as hoped. But they have been successful enough, according to people these access tools were developed for. People living in these heavily censored states report that these new Internet access tools work well enough. Thus the U.S. government continues to support these programs with cash (about $10 million a year) and technical advice (which few people in or out of government will talk about). While not a classified program the U.S. tries to be discreet so the dictatorships cannot respond too quickly to defeat the new access tools created.

One of the current efforts concentrates on North Korea, where past efforts have provided more access to the outside world (especially videos of South Korean TV and movies). These videos have become a major problem for the North Korean government but the U.S. assisted programs keep coming up with new ways to sneak this video and audio programming into North Korea on a regular basis and make it harder for the secret police to discover who is using the stuff. One effort, supported by some major American and South Korean Internet companies, is creating software tools and techniques provide Internet access for all North Koreans. Currently only some North Koreans have access to an internal and government controlled Internet (which only has 28 web sites, all government controlled and monitored).

The dictatorships on the receiving end of these access tools spend a lot of time and effort to fight back. Sometimes they eventually come up with countermeasures. For example in 2011 the Iranian government managed to shut down over 90 percent of Iranians using a program called Tor. Most Iranians appreciated Tor, which was developed by hackers to help people bypass government Internet censorship. The Iranians also appear to have developed the tools for this internally, rather than buying them from Western suppliers. Tor developers were able to get the access software working again but it was a reminder that there are no easy and lasting victories when a dictatorship sees its media control threatened.

The U.S. government, despite a long, combative and acrimonious relationship with the hacker and Internet freedom communities, decided to back Internet freedoms programs that seek to bypass Internet censorship in dictatorships. Thus the American government provided large sums over many years to help hackers seeking to create software that will enable people to evade Internet surveillance and censorship. One of the more notable programs funded was Tor, a system that enables users to communicate without anyone able to identify the sender. Similar to anonymizer software, Tor was even more untraceable. Unlike anonymizer software, Tor relies on thousands of people running the Tor software, and acting as nodes for email (and attachments) to be sent through so many Tor nodes that it was believed virtually impossible to track down the identity of the sender. But the Iranians figured out a way to detect Tor users, and cut them off from the Internet. For the Iranian censors, that was good enough. Other governments (not all of them dictatorships) have developed similar methods for penetrating Tor.

The American “free the data” effect has also funded development of software that makes smart phones safer for users who want to say things to others that their governments disapprove of. All this activity is directed at countries with heavy Internet censorship programs, like China, Burma, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and several African countries. While this software can also be used by criminals, terrorists and spies, the U.S. government believes that these groups already have access to software that can hide them, and that it's more important that police states have more reason to pay attention to what their citizens want.

Some dictatorships have created virtually impregnable Internet controls. This is the case in Cuba and North Korea, where the local Internet is cut off from the global Internet. In effect, the Cuban and North Korean Internet are each restricted to one country, and heavily monitored by the security services. Iran considered that, but decided not to implement an "Iranian Islamic Internet" because the Iranian economy, fueled by huge oil income, has too many useful external contacts. Cutting Iran off from the worldwide web would hurt the economy and cause more unrest.

But the clerical dictatorship that runs Iran has managed to recruit some good software development and Internet talent, and, like China, is using a combination of imported technology (including Chinese censoring systems) and locally developed stuff to keep anti-government individuals off the Internet.

 


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