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Sunday, July 02, 2006

HACKING IRAQ

Enterprising soldiers take the internet into their own hands
By Carey Voss

Imagine: You're living in a previously abandoned compound in the desert with three hundred other people. You have a few rudimentary amenities—running water, three meals a day, a bed to sleep in—but your electricity still depends on a generator and telephone lines are just beginning to be installed. It's hot, people shoot at you, and from time to time, a rocket explodes nearby. In dreams of a more comfortable life, you miss a few simple things: friends and family, junk food, and porn.
As of June 16, 2,498 American soldiers have died and 18,356 have been wounded in the pursuit of Iraqi freedom. The threat of unremitting danger haunts soldiers conducting missions in the streets of Iraq and leaves them physically and psychologically exhausted. Back on the base, the wound-up intensity of constant suspicion and paranoia begs for some release. For most troops deployed in Iraq , the internet is one of the only links to the western world. In the dusty warzone towns, there's no daily newspaper, no local radio station, no grocery store magazine rack, nocell phone, and no movie theatre. To our troops, these luxuries mean more than access to up-to-date information; they represent a normalized, human state of affairs.
Since the military provides just 6 to 12 computers for every 1,000 or so troops, time limits of 10 to 15 minutes per day are often enforced at Morale Welfare Recreation Cafés (the complicated name for military internet cafés). Anyone who sorts through spam, reads forwarded articles and jokes, then tries to respond to “real” email knows 15 minutes isn't enough. Josh Hines, a soldier from Conway who recently returned from Iraq , confirmed that the Army lacks internet services and lamented the scarcity of entertainment options.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that some enterprising military personnel have engineered an alternative. Hajjinets, the common term for troop-owned ISPs, have sprung to life on almost every base around Iraq. A typical Hajjinet is built and maintained by one or two soldiers and can provide nearly 24-hour internet access (until the region is stabilized and electrical lines can be installed, generators must occasionally be powered down for maintenance). Most Hajjinets are small, serving between 20 and 30 troops, but ISPs serving as many as 300 are known to exist. In a country wracked by war, where even the capital city receives only intermittent electricity, where people's lives are in constant peril, and where even basic necessities are scarce, this is no small victory.
A Hajjinet's key elements are satellite service from an international provider, a satellite dish to send and receive data, and a central location inside a base where network hardware is safe from attack. Like an internet-age Frankenstein, a Hajjinet's hardware must be purchased from an international source, shipped in, then cobbled together by military personnel, many of whom have little previous experience running a network.
One of the major difficulties faced by inexperienced system administrators in Iraq is their lack of knowledge about already-existing Hajjinets—the creators of new Hajjinets are forced to invent an entire network from scratch. In response to this problem, Sgt. Dave Coughanour, system administrator and architect of the Hajjinet at Camp Habbaniyah (located in the Suni Triangle between Fallujah and Ramadi) created hajjinet.com, an online forum for other administrators of troop-run ISPs. Sgt. Coughanour speculates that almost every U.S. military base in Iraq has at least one or two small troop-run networks; however, until more people participate in the online forum, it's hard to know how many Hajjinets exist, how many troops they serve, and where they're located.
Sgt. Coughanour admits his office doesn't look pretty. His setup is a hack—not in the invasivesense we're used to seeing in the news, but in the original sense—it's an imperfect but still functioning system. In his network operations center, a jumble of metallic and plastic boxes sit stacked in groups, status lights blink to their own rhythms, and a tangle of wires runs in from all over the base. “It kind of looks like a giant mechanical spider has been living there for a couple of years,” Sgt. Coughanour says.
Sgt. Coughanour's network has been running since September of 2005, and since startup, he estimates they've spent close to a quarter of a million dollars on the service and hardware necessary to run their Hajjinet. In addition, he freely admits that, “to get this running, a lot of things fell of the back of a truck.” If they don't have the right type of wiring for some hardware, they find something that works. This type of mentality seems common to all types of problems: electrical current on the base is European-style 220, but most all their computer hardware is American-style 110, so things blow up a lot.
“You'll have guys who plug [110 hardware] right into a 220,” Sgt. Coughanour says, “and it explodes, and they ask, ‘Why doesn't it work!? I saw smoke coming out of it earlier. Is that a bad thing?'”
Soldiers who use the Hajjinet are responsible for running the lines from the center of the compound out to their own buildings, which means that when someone is lazy and doesn't bury their own cable, a tank is likely to roll by and sever the connection. There's definitely a hold-your-tongue-right air of superstition around the whole operation.
“We were having serious problems with the network. We took the baby Jesus nativity scene, and put that right up on top. Problem solved. Jesus saves,” Sgt. Coughanour says. “That's all I can say.”
At Camp Habbaniyah, soldiers who want to take advantage of the fledgling network set up an account for an initial fee of $100, plus $60 a month for service, all payable via PayPal. This relatively large Hajjinet serves around 300 people and spends about $15,500 per month for business-grade satellite service from a company operating out of the Ukraine. A monthly bill of $15,000 may seem outrageous, but split among 300 people it's just $50 or $60 a month. Smaller Hajjinets serve 20-30 people for around $1,500 per month in satellite cost, which comes to about the same price per person. Sgt. Coughanour hasn't heard many complaints about the price of the nonprofit service he provides, and he's quick to challenge any whiners to find a cheaper connection elsewhere. Some soldiers have tried to steal service, but Sgt. Coughanour figures that's to be expected. “Out of 350 people,” he says, “two or three are going to be scumbags, no matter where you go.”
Josh Hines was surprised to hear that Sgt. Coughanour's superiors allowed the creation of a troop-run network. “That never would have flown at our base,” he said, “but I guess it depends on the commander.” It's easy to understand Hines's disbelief, since, uncharacteristic of the military, there's little bureaucratic oversight of the Hajjinet at Camp Habbaniyah. Because the troops own and maintain the service, the only prohibited sites are those with IPs originating in “questionable” countries or activities that take up a lot of bandwidth (like online gaming). Not to say there aren't plenty of security measures in place—the network employs a firewall and is monitored for suspicious activity, none but military personnel are allowed access, and wireless connections are confined to the center of the base. Sgt. Coughanour was to-the-point on this issue. “If we see people doing things on the network that could compromise our security, we're going to turn them off for personal safety. As much as I like going online, I want to keep my legs.”
There's always a possibility that the Department of Defense may shut down these troop-operated networks, and Sgt. Coughanour doesn't deny it. However, he suggests, “If they [the Department Of Defense] wanted to roll in and say, ‘We're going to shut this down,' I would disconnect it. But they're never going to do that because everybody who's in the DOD in Iraq likes to check their email.”
For now, at least, 350 soldiers in Iraq are free to post to their blogs, watch pornography, and order cans of spaghetti-os from Amazon. In a desert country most civilians can only imagine, American soldiers are acutely aware that the reality of fighting a war in Iraq is not at all like lounging at home, but if access to the internet makes them a little more comfortable, then perhaps the hard work of Sgt. Dave Coughanour and other Hajjinet administrators is worthwhile.

Carey Voss works, makes art, hangs out with kitties, and otherwise attempts to keep herself occupied in Conway, AR. She can be contacted by emailing careyvoss@gmail.com.

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