Hijacking Mobile Networks: Model or Utopia?
While hijacking aircrafts is nothing particularly fancy in the history of the Burmese democracy movement, a new form of hijacking might prove more effective – albeit less dramatic – than taking the plane. As The Wall Street Journal has reported, Rebels Hijack Gadhafi’s Phone Network in order to regain access to electronic means of communication after one month of silence. This report leaves no doubt that considerable technical expertise, funding, and external support were necessary to rewire the given infrastructure.
I summarize some lessons learned that came to my mind while reading about these events and I will try to consider the special situation of Burma.
First: No tech rebellion without techies on your side.
This might at times be a considerable obstacle considering the fact that IT literacy is limited to people who have access to some degree of education. In developing countries and especially under authoritarian regimes where inequality is a supporting pillar of power, IT techies tend to be found in the wealthier parts of the population. But if you’re lucky, powerful countries will send you their engineers – as happened in Libya.
The case of Burma makes me rather skeptical about this option since the two neighboring IT-super powers, China and India, both support the regime. Remarkably also in Libya, the Chinese company Huawei refused to provide equipment to the rebels. Foreign engagement is, no doubt, a double-edged sword.
This being said, history proved that especially in IT there is a high number of self-taught persons, defiant students and geeks who dream of cyber-democracy. So, here is some hope that rebellious Burmese hackers can team up with underpaid telecommunication workers and get together the needed skills.
But even where you have somebody setting up your network, the population must be able to use it. Only recently the digitally developed world begins to understand the relevance of media literacy when recognizing the problem of the second digital devide. Imagine you bring laptops to a village community and these people watch the computer screen just like they used to watch a TV set.
Second: No hijacking without a carrier
It’s trivial, but no hijacking will happen without somebody else having established the target before. If your part of the country is continuously underdeveloped for decades, there might not be anything worth being hijacked as far as the eye can see. Thinking of Burma where even ordinary landline penetration is negligibly small in vast parts of the country, hijacking a mobile network clearly belongs to the realm of science fiction.
It is interesting that Huawai, playing in Gadhafi’s team, has started it’s career providing digital switching solutions on rural markets. Actually, they would be the perfect partner for empowering the people.
The WSJ‘s article about Libya mentions “several million dollars of telecommunications equipment” bought with the help of the U.A.E. and Qatar. Quite a notable investment in the freedom of foreign people. Am I mistaken if I smell the scent of oil in the air? What is the value of a Burmese compared to that of a Libyan? Do you measure it in $-a-barrel?
Third: No lasting control without physical control
Although you can do amazing things with software, with mental superiority and brain-washing, gaining control often requires physical control of the “hardware”. In the case of Libya, “engineers hived off part of the Libyana cellphone network” and “rewired it to run independently of the regime’s control”. While destroying an infrastructure can be done with a missile, rewiring it (and keeping it rewired) requires you to have exclusive access to the wires and switches.
You can think of the Burmese exile radio broadcasting as a form of hijacking regime-controlled frequencies. This, however, works only as long as the frequencies are not jammed, as long as receivers are both available and affordable to the population, and as long as police informers neglect their jobs.
Fourth: External powers determine the outcome
The Chinese Huawai supports Gadhafi, the U.A.E. and Qatar fund the rebels’ equipment, Egypt hesitates but eventually decides not to stand in the way, Etisalat (again from the Emirates) opened their satellite connection, and the Wall Street Journal (together with this blog!) sends the message to the world. In many cases you can assume that prospects of winning or losing market shares provide the primary motivation.
I find it hard to believe that profit-making corporations could possibly follow idealist motives unless they are managed by people with the necessary strength of character.