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realclearworld

A Wi-Fi network for Cuba? Maybe

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Juan Tamayo in The Miami Herald:

A Wi-Fi network for Cuba? Maybe

A program financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop the technology for a novel Wi-Fi network in Cuba has not been deployed on the island and is under review, a USAID spokesman said Monday.

USAID approved the grant to the Open Technology Institute (OTI) in Washington in 2012 as part of the agency’s efforts to promote Internet freedom, democracy and civil society in Cuba, said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the agency.

The network, known as Commotion, “is not operational in Cuba” and no one has traveled to the country for the program, Herrick said. Cuban authorities have jailed USAID subcontractor Alan P. Gross since 2009 for a somewhat similar program.

OTI’s grant “is now under review. We are looking into it, to see if it’s consistent with the [OTI] proposal and achieves expected outcomes,” said the spokesman, declining to provide further details. The grant is set to expire Sept. 30, 2015.

The USAID grant to OTI was made public in 2012, but came under a new spotlight after The New York Times reported Sunday on a similar Commotion system in Tunisia, financed by the State Department, and mentioned the Cuba program.

USAID drew a lot of fire from critics of its Cuba programs after the Associated Press reported earlier this month that it financed a Twitter-like system for Cubans. The agency said the system was not secret but had to be “discreet” because of Cuba’s “non-permissive environment.”

In contrast to Cuba, which has branded the USAID programs as thinly veiled efforts at “regime change,” the Tunisia program was launched in December with the approval of authorities in the town of Sayada.

Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence for delivering satellite phones to Cuban Jews so they could have uncensored access to the Internet. While Wi-Fi signals are easy to intercept and pinpoint, satellite phone signals are more difficult to locate.

OTI is required to develop the technology for a Cuba version of Commotion — basically a way of linking several Wi-Fi routers into a “mesh” that can bypass government snoops — but has not tried to deploy it on the island, according to knowledgeable sources.

The Wi-Fi program “is part of the U.S. government’s long-standing commitment to facilitate open communications among the Cuban people and with the outside world,” Herrick said.

The Times report said the Sayada network was started by Tunisian academics and computer geeks who took part in the 2011 uprising that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It described his government as “deeply invested in digital surveillance.”

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