Friday, February 18, 2011

Is this man a specialist in cybernetic counterintelligence?

Eduardo Fontes Suárez
A 53 minute video of Eduardo Fontes Suárez giving a presentation on the US attempts at cyber war against Cuba was recently leaked and put online. I won't say more about that because you can read an excellent discussion of its content and likely authenticity here. You can also read a transcript in English or in Spanish.

I will focus on the part of the talk during which Fontes Suárez, who is a "specialist in cybernetic counterintelligence," describes a plot by the US to smuggle ten BGAN satellite terminals into Cuba on order to provide unfettered Internet access by NGOs, bloggers and others.

Fontes Suárez seems to have little knowledge of the technology he is describing, which leads him to grossly overstate its capability.

Fontes Suárez says there are "10 BGAN terminals in different parts of the country" and "These ten terminals are around wireless networks which already existed".  Wow -- ten pre-existing wireless networks with unfettered Internet access sounds like it might be a big deal, but let's look further.

How big are these ten wireless networks? The fastest BGAN terminal is capable of "up to" 492 kbps and subject to the usual high latency of a satellite link. So these "wireless networks" are actually just WiFi hot spots with users sharing a slow, high-latency connection. One user may be able to watch a Netflix video or carry on a VoIP conversation, but if there were, say three or four, they would be restricted to very slow Web surfing or text applications.

Fontes Suárez also refers to people sitting at home and seeing a message pop up that says "you're connected to the Internet." He envisions them as pleasantly surprised and happily "logging on" and starting to search, surf and download. Given this description, I get the feeling that he has never used WiFi.

He goes on to talk about connecting 25-30 machines using WiFi. For a start, 492 kbps/25 = 20 kbps. Web sites are unusable at that speed. He goes on to say the 25-30 machines can be spread out over a half mile to a mile. WiFi is designed for small, local area networks. A WiFi link connecting only one user who was half a mile away would take large antennas with line of sight visibility. Even if the 25 machines were in the same room as the access point, the contention for the limited number of WiFi channels and the access point protocols would slow them to a crawl.

He says the minimum number of users of a BGAN terminal is five. Is there a minimum? Does the equipment refuse to work if there are only four users? When BGAN speaks of five users, they are all assumed to be in the same room as or very close to the base station. If there were five users, remember that they would be sharing a high-latency link of "up to" 492 kbps.

Fontes Suárez also asserts that "in Havana there are thousands of wireless computers connected in any neighborhood, from Playa to San Miguel del Padron" and that kids are using them to play games and university students are using them to study collaboratively. Ten BGAN links in different parts of the country would not be of much use to these "thousands" of computers.

I do not know how widespread WiFi is in Havana or elsewhere in Cuba, but I am skeptical of this image of somewhat ubiquitous WiFi in homes and university dorms. I do know that computer ownership and Internet connection rates are low in Cuba. I also know that there would be little reason to have a WiFi access point that was connected to the Internet via a dial-up line.

It also seems that one must register a WiFi LAN. At the MIC Web site, under the heading "Wireless Networks," we see that registration is required:
Los equipos y dispositivos auxiliares que componen estos sistemas están sujetos a la obtención de un certificado de homologación otorgado por el Ministerio de la Informática y las Comunicaciones (MIC), y podrán ser sometidos a los procedimientos de medición y comprobación de sus parámetros por los laboratorios que designe ese ministerio.
The application form is here. (Note that it describes the radios as spread spectrum in frequency band 2456 to 2482 MHz. The frequency is not exactly WiFi -- this may be a typo or indicate some non-standard technology). Does anyone know whether this registration requirement is actually enforced?

Finally, Fontes Suárez claims that BGAN terminals use "linear transmission," which he claims is difficult to detect and it surely sounds nefarious, but what does that piece of snow/jargon mean?

Some have questioned the authenticity of this leak - it may be a plant. One never knows, but it is hard for me to believe that Fontes Suárez is a specialist in cybernetic counterintelligence.
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