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Editorials 23 June, 2011

International electronic warfare: a contemporary reading


Fawzi Hassan Hussain

Fawzi Hassan Hussain is a doctoral candidate at the Beirut Arab University in Lebanon writing his thesis on ‘Strategic Planning Foreign Policy and States’ National Security Projects: The United States as a Case Study.’ He earned a higher diploma in political sciences from the same university in 2006 and his Master’s degree in 2008. His Master’s dissertation was entitled ‘China and Japan: Elements of Global Hegemony’ which was published on the Al Jazeera website. He also holds a baccalaureate in political sciences from Baghdad University since 2002.

The New York Times reported on June 12, 2011, that the US government is determined to provide advanced technological assistance to freedom and human rights activists in the Middle East, and to those rebelling against the regimes that Washington sees as authoritarian. The purpose of this program will be to enable these activists to directly reach the world with the messages of freedom and democracy for which they struggle in the event that the regimes attempt to disrupt Internet service and/or mobile phone networks during the protests. Such disruption was indeed experienced during the Egyptian Revolution, when the Egyptian authorities cut off Internet and mobile phone access in order to prevent any contact between the demonstrators and the people and media around the world who were monitoring and reporting the revolution's developments.

The assistance will center around technological training on how to establish secret Internet connections to an international mobile network that is not subject to the monitoring or control of any state, thus enabling the activists to communicate their situation within the "Arab Spring" without anyone's censorship or obstruction. The main idea can be summed up as follows: soon, a special device will be manufactured that will enable its carrier to connect to the Internet without the state and its apparatuses being aware of this communications link. The device will be small enough to carry in a suitcase, and easy to assemble and disassemble; and the person using it will be able send and receive whatever videos, photos, documents or information they wish. Users also will be able to make free international phone calls through dedicated telephone networks, provided they have received the required code and password required.

The US State Department is currently in the process of implementing this project after securing the necessary funding. In my opinion, the states in which this device will most likely be used are Iran, Syria, China and perhaps North Korea, since these are governed by isolationist regimes with strict controls on communications technology, including mobile phone and Internet networks.

This step carries a great deal of strategic weight as it is designed to achieve complete penetration of Middle Eastern and other states by relying on human intelligence, which remains indispensible despite the massive advancements in technology-based espionage. It is part of US global hegemony, which expands in spite of the sovereignty of states. This latest move reflects a new trend in US policy and practice, the difference being that this time it has taken on an official and public character.  

The deployment of a secret Internet network in a particular area would be carried out in one of the following four ways:

A. The placement of wireless transmitters atop US embassies, consulates and other locations under their control within the country concerned (thereby providing a covert Internet service), exactly in the way that high-rise towers provide coverage areas for mobile phone networks. This method is dangerous because it is easy to discover; state apparatuses can detect the use of frequencies not registered by telecommunications companies, and unusual equipment on embassy and consulate rooftops can be seen and raise questions.

B. The use of special satellites to provide the covert Internet service. The technology required would be similar to that of global positioning system (GPS) equipment, but such a method would be very expensive.

C. The use of naval vessels to provide covert Internet coverage in the state concerned. Such vessels in the Gulf, for example, could cover Iran, while those in the Mediterranean Sea could provide the service to Syria. This method is the easiest and would be the most difficult to discover.

D. Large aircraft, such as Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, could provide such covert service by carrying out daily flights over the concerned countries for extended periods of time. This would require agreement between US intelligence services and the users on the times for transmissions. This method would also be expensive.

Such projects are, without a doubt, in clear violation of states' sovereignty, international law, and the rights of Internet and mobile phone service providers. This is not to mention the potential communications chaos that could occur in the countries concerned. Beyond this, users of such covert Internet networks (be they protesters or human rights activists) could dub the sounds in their videos or fabricate the images with image manipulation software, thereby transmitting information that is not truthful. Who will be able to control and guarantee this process?

Add to this the fact that countries that have made significant strides in the field of communications technology, such as Iran, will have their own plans and strategies to confront such covert Internet service. They could locally manufacture the necessary equipment, or rely on foreign expertise, to track alien frequencies that have not been documented or registered by Internet and mobile phone providers, enabling them to pinpoint the locations of the users of such an Internet network.

The strategy of developing, deploying and distributing access to a secret Internet service and a derivative international telephone network will undoubtedly unfold in the long term, during which period it will be developed to its fullest potential. This is because there are countries which have maintained a firm grip on their communications networks, requiring US foreign policy to break this hold. China and its quest to become the second pole in a bipolar world, and North Korea with it nuclear ambitions, to list but two examples, are US targets that have been put on hold for the time being, pending the passing of the "Arab Spring".

This electronic infiltration, and the defensive and precautionary measures that will be the response of its targets, will cause a revolution in contemporary media - and a new revolution in communications technology - because there are private companies trying to profit by creating new tools and technologies for both the defensive and offensive aspects of this battle. This will render satellite news channels of no value, as they may largely be unable to reach the heart of the event (the event being isolated from accessible public information networks). News agencies and satellite television channels would be thus replaced by human rights activists and protesters using covert Internet networks.

In the area of ​​international criminal law, the burden of proof for criminal offenses would pose a serious problem for the International Criminal Court. This is because it would be quite easy to argue that documents, photographs and films obtained from secret Internet and other unknown sources do not meet evidentiary standards. This will raise an inevitable legal controversy.

Finally, these US policies will bring more chaos and disruption to the region, at a time when it is in desperate need of security and stability. This, perhaps, falls within the framework of creative chaos.