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US high-risk mission to beat web censors

world Updated: Apr 19, 2012 00:22 IST

For more than a year, the intelligence services of various authoritarian regimes have shown an intense desire to know more about what goes on in an office building on L Street in Washington DC, six blocks away from the White House.

The office is the HQ of a US government-funded technology project aimed at undermining internet censorship in countries such as Iran and Syria. And so every week email inquiries arrive there that purport to be from pro-democracy activists in those places, but which, the recipients are confident, actually come from spies.

This is international espionage at its most elementary: pretend to be a sympathiser, ask for more details, and just maybe, if you're lucky, some unsuspecting intern or temp will forward you the secret plans. It's much easier than intercepting phone calls, cultivating double agents or infiltrating opposition groups.

This kind of dissimulation has been going on forever. But if you wanted a sign of the strangeness of this moment in history, you could not hope for one more telling than this: the spies who email the L Street office always get their questions answered, in detail.

"Everything is open - all the code," says Sascha Meinrath, who runs the project, codenamed Commotion Wireless.

The fact that Meinrath and his fellow geeks are committed to radical transparency is not surprising: that has been the ethos of grassroots internet culture since the beginning. What is a surprise is the fact that the US state department is providing such people with millions of dollars. Such are the strange bedfellows of the era: on one hand, the US government is funding Commotion Wireless, which will enable anyone with a smartphone to connect with other smartphones, forming a "mesh network" - an impromptu internet - to communicate by stealth, regardless of efforts to monitor or shut down traffic.

On the other hand, the FBI distributed flyers warning that the use of "anonymisers", encryption or "multiple cell phones" might be "indicators of terrorist activities".