Rebellion and Technology: Software is Changing the World

Posted: January 31, 2011 in Non-AZ

As most people are aware, the MSM had already dubbed the revolution in Tunisia as a “Twitter Revolution”. The same can be said of what has occurred in Egypt as well. Why it is important is perhaps less well understood. The ability to communicate is a key logistical consideration for any mass movement. Communication provides the ability to coordinate movement and supplies, to supply psychological support to the people involved, to garner external support and affect worldwide propaganda, to deliver demands to the government, and to obtain intelligence on government troop movements, plans, PR, etc.

The Tunisian lock-down was not as complete as the Egyptian lock-down, and neither worked as effectively as their governments would have liked. Egypt’s first blockage affected DNS or Domain Name Servers throughout the country. Of course, the people immediately switched to using Proxy Servers instead. Once that proved unsuccessful, the Government moved to shut down broadband connections. Unfortunately for the government, that has problems too.

Egypt cannot control every little bit of infrastructure and here is why. There are three submarine major international cables. Egypt can restrict how data goes out of those cables but they don’t have the right and the ability to really cut them off…they have tried but have not been entirely successful. Also, since they don’t own those lines, it would be extremely unwise for them to physically sabotage them. And there are other aspects that they don’t own as well.

The ubiquitous nature of the Internet while a boon for the average person, can be a vulnerability for a government. Certain services, such as banking, must run through an ISP and remain open even when the rest of the ISP’s are locked down. Furthermore, there are over 200 ISP’s in Egypt and most of them are private companies that maintain a diverse range of customers. The same ISP that provides Internet connectivity for the government’s banking system, might also provide the same service for companies and families. It should also be noted that revolutions almost always have people who are working in the government but support the activists. In those cases, the ability to share that connectivity is a possible means of gaining access to the outside world and to each other.

Moreover, the ability to connect allowed demonstrators to consider counterattacks*. As stated before, a government without money cannot function so an offensive against the banking system and stock market is an obvious line of attack. It’s easy to do….Denial of service attacks are easy to pull-off and can be quite effective, not to mention spreading worms and planting viruses.

Once broadband was locked-down, the Egyptian government tried locking down mobile providers. As we all know, the modern phone, capable of surfing as well and as fast, as the first Internet capable PC’s, are more than sufficient to handle the communication between activists and demonstrators. Eventually though, the mobile avenue was also locked down.

Once that occurred, the demonstrators are resorting to an older technology–dial-up. In many countries, the use of a dial-up modem is not that far removed and often kept as a backup when other, more modern technologies fail or are not available. Even though it is much slower, their access options are much broader. There are millions of phone numbers in the world, both local and long distance, that these modems could connect to and gain Internet access. Also, just like in the U.S., some access is provided through DSL lines and some of those are still open. These are dial-up lines that function over much faster telephone lines.

In addition to these traditional connection options, quite a few people were prepared for the outage. In the months ahead of this action, Egyptian online users downloaded and used software that protects their identity and helps them get to blocked sites through the use of a technology called tunneling.1 Tunneling is when data packets that are sent over a line are packaged differently than the typical traffic that goes over a line. It allows the senders and receivers using the tunneling appear as if they are “acceptable” traffic on the line and to disguise themselves and their data. Thus, Egyptian users can completely avoid not only the government-created blocks, they can protect themselves from persecution both during the demonstration and after everything has settled down again.

Of course, most users downloaded the software before the lock-down went into place. However, downloads of such software continued through whatever pathways to the Internet that were still functioning. It was using this tunnelling technology that many people were able to keep posting to sites like Facebook and Twitter, communicating to others how they could circumvent the blockages as well.

While radio and satellite communication remained out of reach for most Egyptians, it should be noted that there are legitimate organizations and groups that maintained radio stations and maintained their own cell towers. One such example is called SailMail, for a group of yacht owners to allow for communication while they are out on their boats. So smaller more expensive subnets, and radio and wireless technology were used as well.

Basically, in a country of about 77 million people, there were over 1 million Internet subscribers on a typical day in Egypt. If even a portion of these individuals were able to communicate across wide areas and between the major cities where most of the populace lives, the rest of the messages would have spread like wildfire through the densely packed urban landscape of Cairo and Alexandria.

Even if the average Egyptian or Tunisian can no longer get access to the Internet now that it is locked down, enough time has been gained that the area became blanketed with journalists from all over the world that have cameras and satellite feeds used to transmit data back to their home countries. If we learned nothing more from the Vietnam War, we should have at least learned just how important the transmission of images is in the larger propaganda war. It appeared that the government was attacking any journalists from the region, confiscating their equipment, and in some cases arresting them. Al Jazeera being the most notable example, has had all of their Cairo accreditation withdrawn–which means that they will not be afforded any special protection as journalists should they be caught trying to broadcast news from there again but non-Arab journalists have remained, to date, unscathed.

There are several really interesting things coming out of these movements.

1) The fact that Egyptians prepared for it. They download the tunneling software ahead of time and the developers taught human rights activists how to use the software….just in case. This means that people living in repressive regimes are doing more to protect themselves and to be ready for revolts than we understood in the West.

2) To what degree did these software developers and their free application make these revolutions possible?

3) Technology has always been an equaling force in war and rebellion (if you haven’t read “Germs, Guns and Steel” by Jared Diamond you should). However, in the past, the focus has been on the size and effectiveness of weapons as an equalizer (except perhaps where encryption and computers comes into play in modern warfare). Now it seems that the ability to communicate using technology may become equally as important, if not more important, as the technology of weapons.

4) How does this new ability to communicate build support in the broader world that in turn puts pressure for reforms on the government. It used to be that by the time we saw what was going on in a country, the entire affair would be over and what images there would be limited in scope from particular individuals. Internet communication democratises front-line reporting and accessibility means that other countries position on the situation can be updated and modified faster than ever before. Not quite at the speed of light, but close enough to make a difference in the process. The U.S. has already pulled back from supporting Mubarak and he is now instructing his new Prime Minister to engage with all political parties in a desperate attempt to retain control.

5) As anti-Global as many people are in the world without globalization and the infrastructure that has resulted, these revolutions would not have occurred.

*I haven’t found any information that they actually managed to conduct any counterattacks but I will be keeping my eyes open for it.
  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tina Rhodes-Arden, auntieeminaz. auntieeminaz said: Rebellion and Technology: Software is Changing the World « Mrs. D. Ranged In AZ: via @addthis […]

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