WASHINGTON – The “spy versus spy” world of Internet censorship was the focus of today’s monthly CCLP forum here.
The speaker was André Mendes, Director of the Office of Technology, Services and Innovation at the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, who showed live demonstrations of circumvention technologies – in real time – as they were being used in China, Iran and Cuba.
Mendes presented the newest tool to defeat local censorship, Ultrasurf, which he described as “the best weapon in our arsenal.” Users can “bypass all firewalls” and get full access to the Internet – not just the web sites allowed in China or Iran. He said many are getting the software from local organizations in their country and may not even realize it is coming from the U.S.
Another innovation he demonstrated was a small card developed last year for Android mobile phones. It can hold all of the U.S. web sites that are forbidden in China and Iran – and can be updated with new information. One attractive feature is that it is inexpensive.
“It costs next to nothing,” Mendes said.
But all of these new countermeasures are challenged quickly by countries that censor the Internet. Mendes said China has even created a Ph.D. program specifically to train experts to counter Ultrasurf.
“It’s a cat and mouse game,” Mendes said. “We have seen proxy servers eliminated in one minute [after being launched].”
With all of these new tools, there is always an element of danger for users in totalitarian countries.
“There is no perfect system,” said Mendes. “Our objective is to minimize risk.
One new tool to reduce that risk is software that erases all traces of U.S. broadcasts, web sites and even contact information for dissidents with the touch of one button. Mendes said memories are wiped clean within ten seconds, which he described as especially useful “when the bad guys show up at your door – which they do.”
On television, Mendes said the U.S. now transmits programs to China via Ku-band satellite, which can be received on small dish receivers “like DirecTV or Dish.”
“As of the last survey,” Mendes said, Ku band television has “11% penetration in China.” He added that that survey was three years ago, so the number must now be much higher.
The total cost of the new satellite service, with channels for both VOA and Radio Free Asia, is under $400,000 a year.
Another recent innovation is “Radio Farda with Slate,” a technology that allows Farda to transmit television images, at low speed, to accompany news programs. The cost, according to Mendes, is just $350,000 a year.
“We have the largest digital portfolio in the world,” said Mendes, and the cost of operating all of those transmitters keeps increasing as energy prices rise.
But Mendes said U.S. international broadcasting cannot abandon short wave or other older technologies, even though there are “dwindling returns from legacy technology.”
To reach North Korea, for example, the U.S. uses a radio transmitter that is 20 times more powerful than the strongest transmitter in the U.S.
“The signal in Pyongyang is outstanding,” Mendes said.
And some recent audience successes have been in those older technologies: Mendes said the new Radio Sawa FM station in Benghazi became the most popular station there “within hours of going on the air.” The Sawa station in Tripoli has also become very popular.
Even America’s much-criticized Cuba broadcast service has had recent success. Mendes described a game show offering the prize of a bicycle to people who call the program’s phone number. As soon as they offer the prize, he said, the phone lines come to life, proving that the program is reaching an audience.
And Mendes described a new, still secret technology under development that will enable Cubans to have full, secure two-way communication with the Internet.
“It really works,” Mendes said. “I have tested it there.”
He quickly added that he had tested it in Guantanamo, not on the streets of Havana.
Next month’s program, on April 1st, will discuss “International Broadcasting in the Era of Social Media,” reprising last week’s conference at USC in Los Angeles. The moderator will be Philip Seib, Director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.