Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 June 2011

Lack of Imagination IV: Technologies of Freedom

Reported Recent Developments
Why We Need to Do Better
How We Can Do Better


This is my fourth in a series of posts about how we Americans could change the world with a little more imagination.

The first discussed the use of small, remotely piloted aircraft as weapons against terrorists, other asymmetrical fighters, and clandestine developers of WMD. The second and third covered ways to get the Chevy Volt to market and to market it successfully, against the background of the supreme importance of electric cars. (I’m happy to confess that subsequent events in the electric-car market have made those posts largely obsolete.)

This post describes how we can use half-forgotten Cold-War technologies to spread freedom and break down the invisible walls of national prisons like Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

The immediate impetus for this post was a recent piece in the New York Times. That article reported how we are financing the development of informal, ad hoc cell-phone networks and mini-Internets that no government authority can shut down. It described semi-public work financed by our State Department but hinted at more secret and therefore more serious projects.

Reported Recent Developments

The Times article focused on two readily available technologies: (1) cell phones and (2) the Internet. It described how even amateurs can convert individual cell phones and portable computers into nodes for small, independent cell-phone networks or miniature, localized intranets.

These technologies have three advantages. First, they use presently available—and often ubiquitous—commercial devices like cell phones and portable computers (laptops, netbooks or tablets). Often all they require is software modifications, in the form of upgrades to firmware or cell-phone SIM cards.

Second, to the extent they are software based, these technologies of freedom are easy to transfer and install, even under the very noses of hostile authorities. Software is intangible. It can go anywhere electricity or radio waves go, and just as fast. So to the extent that technologies of freedom require only software upgrades, dissenters and freedom fighters can “smuggle” them intangibly and instantaneously.

The third advantage is that these technologies of freedom are cheap. The Times article describes a State Department program using hackers and other Internet aficionados, whose total cost is $ 2 million. By today’s standards for civilian projects, let alone military ones, that is less than pocket change; it’s pocket fluff.

Why We Need to Do Better

But these cheap projects also have two key failings. First, they ultimately require ground-based communication. Either they use the ordinary Internet or cell-phone infrastructure, which consists of microwave or cell-phone towers and fiber-optic cable, or, in more primitive areas, copper or coaxial cable. Or they rely on ad hoc ground-based wireless systems.

Therefore all these methods of transmitting signals have one thing in common. They are terrestrial. If by cable, they can be tapped, cut or interrupted. If by wireless, they can be detected, intercepted, jammed or blocked. In either case, they can be monitored, often without communicators’ knowledge, rendering dissidents and freedom fighters vulnerable to arrest, intimidation, coercion and liquidation.

As a communications system, the Internet is a headless horseman. We designed it during the Cold War to provide reliable point-to-point communication with absolutely no central control or command point. Internet communications “packets” proceed from surviving node to surviving node, in essentially random order, and still get to their intended destination (if it, too, has survived) in a form that allows them to be reassembled in good order. No doubt the new cell-phone intranet technologies work on the same principles.

But our DARPA, which funded development of the original Internet protocols, never designed them to be undetectable. That goal was beyond the project’s purview because: (1) we wanted the system for our own internal use and (2) its primary goal was to insure the survivability of our internal communications whenever more than one node survived, even in a nuclear war.

Making random communications undetectable inside a prison nation is a more difficult problem. In that context we must assume that all communications are, in theory, subject to monitoring, interception, jamming and/or blocking. After all, there are only two known ways of communicating electronically: (1) over cable (whether copper wire, coax or fiber optic) or (2) by “wireless,” i.e. by radio energy (which includes microwave, infrared and ultraviolet radiation).

The problem of making free speech undetectable is a particularly difficult one with standard equipment. Cell phones, microwave towers, and even Bluetooth devices use standard and well-known frequencies and protocols. Their communications run along terrestrial cables, among terrestrial towers, or in open airwaves. So authorities in prison nations don’t have to be geniuses or technological innovators to capture and disrupt them. For these reasons, hackers and Internet jockeys are never going to save free speech entirely or protect its unauthorized practitioners reliably.

How We Can Do Better

Physics is not magic. Even secret communications must proceed by wire or wireless. We don’t know any other ways. But that doesn’t mean communications can’t be much better hidden than with standard cell-phone and computer devices running on standard frequencies.

During the Cold War, we developed a number of advanced technologies for the purpose of hiding communications from the most advanced and sophisticated listener (then presumed to be the Soviet Union). They included such things as as “burst” transmissions, frequency alterations before or during transmission, and directional focus.

Most of these technologies we developed in the era of discrete transistors, before widespread use of integrated circuits. Now we can package them in small, cheap, ultra-low-power devices, permitting their use in tiny, high-battery life, portable machines.

Another, even simpler technology is directional antennas. Long-known radio technology makes it possible to focus radio transmissions in a tight beam. (Laser beams are much tighter still, but their technology is more exotic and expensive.)

We can design small, collapsible directional antennas whose tight directional profile makes detecting their use difficult, if not impossible, unless the detector sits precisely in the small angular range intended for transmission. If the transmission is directed is upward—for example, toward an artificial satellite stationed high above—it is almost impossible to detect except from an aircraft that happens to be in exactly the right airspace at exactly the time the transmission occurs.

We already have a commercial system of such satellites. Known as Iridium, it makes wireless communication possible between any two points on Earth, without any cell-phone towers or other ground-based physical infrastructure.

The original hand-held devices for Iridium were much bigger and heavier than cell phones. But no doubt they could be made smaller and lighter today; the original models are nearly two decades old.

More detail on these technologies is neither necessary nor desirable. In any event, many of the details are still secret, and I am not in the know. Some details undoubtedly lie moldering unused in the annals of Cold-War technology, or in weapons systems seldom if ever used.

But three points are worth mentioning. First, taking these technologies out of cold storage, implementing them and reproducing them widely would be both easy and cheap with modern integrated-circuit technology, including ASICs (application specific integrated circuits). Second, it is unlikely that any prison country, with the possible exception of China, could develop effective countermeasures during the next ten years.

Detecting these advanced clandestine transmissions is much harder than generating them. A would-be spy has to contend with a fourfold infinitude of frequency, duration, transmission angle and encryption. No one foreign nation (possibly excluding China) has a ghost of a chance of developing countermeasures before the Arab Spring and its Persian counterpart have their day.

Third and most important, this technology is not very expensive. An entire course of development would almost certainly cost less than a single B-1 bomber. And because we have already developed most of the necessary basic technology, if not its modern, miniaturized counterparts, its wider use could provide lucrative opportunities for our private industry (under military secrecy, of course).


I hope our government is even now sponsoring development and application of these powerful technologies of freedom. It may be doing so in secret. Since I’m not in the know, I have no way of knowing whether it is or is not.

But if it’s not, it should be. No other nation, with the possible exception of Russia, has the capability of matching or countering this technology. And, with the Cold War over and a healthy supply of indigenous oil and gas, Russia now has even less interest in suppressing legitimate struggles for freedom than we do. Witness its acquiescence in NATO’s support for freedom in Libya, once its client state.

So, with the possible exception of China, no authoritarian nation has the interest in, or any reasonable prospect for, developing countermeasures in the foreseeable future. By the time a prison nation like Iran, North Korea or Syria (let alone Zimbabwe) learns to develop countermeasures, an indigenous liberation movement is likely to have succeeded.

The Arab Spring proves the enormous potential of indigenous liberation movements for overturning tyrants, even if we have already forgotten the proof of earlier movements in the Philippines, South Africa and the Ukraine. In the worst of circumstances, all these movements need is reliable, undetectable means of communication.

Modern technologies, which most prison states do not possess, can provide them. We are the world’s leader in those technologies, and we can make them available quickly and astoundingly cheaply.

We should do so. We should not relegate the technologies of freedom to hackers, Internet mavericks and other amateurs. Instead, we should use these advanced and robust technologies, which we spent so much to develop during the Cold War, for a better and more noble purpose than mutually assured destruction.

We should use them to spread freedom everywhere while the opportunity lasts. Doing so will be the cheapest and most cost-effective investment in a safer and saner world that we will ever have the chance to make.


Not only does Nissan have an all-electric car, the Leaf, in production now. Ford and several competitors have announced their own similar products, and the New York Times recently reviewed three new brands of small electric cars for city driving. Apparently the managers of car companies are now fully aware of the potential of and necessity for all-electric vehicles. For my preliminary thoughts and still unresolved conclusions on competition among the Volt, Leaf and Ford Focus, click here.

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