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Monday, September 27, 2021

Afghanistan: How can messaging work safely in an internet shutdown?

Until now, Afghans have been able to use the internet more or less free of censorship and government control. But for how much longer? Here are some tools for safe communication, without relying on the internet.

By: Deutsche Welle |
August 29, 2021 10:58:13 pm
A woman sits in front of her computer at an Internet cafe in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP File)

When the balance of power in a country suddenly shifts as the result of an undemocratic process, the new rulers always impose heavy restrictions on civil liberties. It happens after a military coup, as in Myanmar in February 2021; after unfree elections, as in Belarus in August 2020; or after a military conquest, as more recently with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The internet has established itself as a global mass medium, which is why it’s usually the first to attract the attention of new rulers. Depending on their technical capabilities, they then block certain websites, or may simply pull the plug completely.

However, the Taliban also use popular messaging apps, which means they, too, rely on the Internet. For that reason, it remains unclear what will happen next in Afghanistan, but temporary nationwide or regional internet shutdowns are still very possible.

In today’s digital age, it may seem like no internet means a complete communication breakdown. In fact, there are still a few options. DW has compiled a list.

Briar: Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, smartphone to smartphone

Briar is an Android app that enables so-called peer-to-peer (P2P) communication. Two smartphones connect directly via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi without accessing any existing infrastructure such as network routers or cellphone networks, for example.

The disadvantage of this method is that it has a very short range — about 10 meters (around 30 feet) with Bluetooth, and potentially up to 100 meters with Wi-Fi. Its big advantage is the direct connection, which is secured by end-to-end encryption. This means that intelligence services, cellphone service providers and hackers are unable to access the data.

Briar’s greatest strength is its ability to bring together a large number of these direct connections to create a network. As a result, communication isn’t just limited to two people; a great many people can communicate with each other, over greater distances.

This technology is called a mesh network. If one person in the mesh network still has a functioning connection to the internet — because they are using a foreign SIM card, for example — they can share their access with all the people connected to the network.
The internet connection is usually made via Tor, which anonymizes it so no one outside the network can read the communications at this point, either.

However, anyone who is part of a mesh network should be aware that they are also automatically sending data that they haven’t seen, and that this data may potentially violate the law.

Briar is a free, open-source app. The tool is funded by organizations that support internet freedom, like the global Access Now or the Open Technology Fund based in the US.

Briar is available via the Google Play Store or open-source software repository F-Droid.

Bridgefy: For Android and Apple users

This app follows a similar approach to Briar, allowing communication through a mesh network that is also established via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Bridgefy can be used on both Android and iOS (Apple) devices, an advantage over Briar. This is also presumably why Bridgefy has been heavily used by the protest movement in Hong Kong.

Bridgefy, which is not open source, is distributed by a Mexican company of the same name, and financed through advertising.

In the past, there have been security concerns about the encryption process used by Bridgefy. But the app now uses the Signal protocol, which is considered secure. It came to prominence as part of the messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp, and is well-regarded by security researchers.

Silence: Encrypted text messages

If the internet has been shut down but the telephone network and SMS text messaging are still working, the Silence app can provide secure text communication.

Classic SMS communication is unencrypted, and can easily be accessed and read by third parties. Silence closes this security loophole and encrypts the text messages.

However, only the content of the communication is protected from surveillance. Metadata — showing when and with whom messages are exchanged — cannot be encrypted. Because Apple does not license third-party apps for SMS services, Silence is currently only available for Android.

Silence is free and open source. Its development is financed by donations.

Solutions to circumvent internet censorship

Options for digital communication without the internet are limited, but maintaining contact is not impossible. However, it’s important to be cautious when using these tools, bearing in mind both local laws and the prevailing security situation.

If an internet connection is available but heavily censored, or certain websites are blocked, there are other tools like Psiphon or Tor can help get around the censorship.

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