War Driving in Lhasa Vegas

Posted by Oxblood Ruffin at Aug 17, 2015 08:20 AM |
This post by Oxblood Ruffin is part of the 'Studying Internets in India' series. Oxblood Ruffin is a hacktivist and film maker. He joined the CULT OF THE DEAD COW in 1996 as its Foreign Minister. Colonel Ruffin is co-author of the Hacktivismo Enhanced Source Software Licencse Agreement (HESSLA), network curmudgeon, and line cook. He will publish a book on information warfare in 2016. In this essay, Colonel Ruffin traces the history of Internet access in Dharamsala, and the factors at play in shaping it - mundane and maverick, familiar and outlier.


Monkeys would often climb up the poles to fool around with the routers forcing Yahel to fix a cage around them to make them “monkey-proof”
— Eric Brewer

War is an outmoded concept
— Dalai Lama


Oxblood Ruffin - Dharamsala


Dharamsala is on the frontline of the Indian internet, fuelled by information activists. Its transition from a sleepy hill station to the residence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile clearly politicised the region. The Tibetan diaspora was its primary network. Information flowed in and out of Dharamsala along conventional means. Students of Buddhism, backpackers, and tourists began to arrive after reading exotic press reports. And then almost overnight everything changed. The internet arrived and with it an explosion of content and possibility. Dharamsala transitioned again.

In 1959 the Dalai Lama (HHDL) escaped from Tibet to India after the Chinese invasion. And estimated six thousand monasteries and temples were destroyed by the Peoples Liberation Army and up to 1.2 million Tibetans - approximately one sixth of the population - were killed or died of starvation after China invaded Tibet in 1950. A large influx of Tibetan refugees followed HHDL which in turn made Dharamsala a popular tourist destination.

It is equally chaotic. Like much of touristic India it is full of shambolic hawkers in pursuit of the gora dollar; Israeli twenties fresh from the military and hot for bhang; American unicorns stinking of patchouli in their first pair of harem pants; and young Punjabi men drowning in beer on the weekends. Dharamsala is all of these things, and it is more. Dharamshala is a Hindi word loosely translated into English as 'spiritual dwelling' or 'sanctuary'.

The region is surrounded by pine forests. The Dalai Lama’s residence in McLeod Ganj and the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government in exile, or CTA) are also located in Dharamsala. Some folks from Delhi have remarked that when they’re in McLeod Ganj they have the feeling that they aren’t in India. Much of the architecture is in the Tibetan style and the diversity of town-life is atypical. The local Gaddi [tribal] community is supplemented by Kashmiri merchants and Tibetan vendors. Then there is the steady stream of tourists from every point on earth; many having come to study Tibetan culture and Buddhism. Even though HHDL arrived in this mountain town ten years before the first nodes of the internet were deployed, Dharamsala had become a hotbed of activism waiting to connect.

In the earliest days campaigning was contained within the Tibetan community, and the bustling Dharamsala of today had yet to emerge. But over time, year by year, volunteers from the outside would drift through. Most would work for a few weeks or a few months. Some would never leave. Networks were formed and the technologies of those times were worked overtime. Printing presses, fax machines, photocopiers, tape recorders, photography and, film. Everything was used to get the Tibetan message out, and all of these technologies were used to preserve Tibetan culture in ways that were forbidden in Chinese occupied Tibet. And steadily another technology was developing. The internet.

In 1986 the Education and Research Network (ERNET) was initiated by the Department of Electronics and transmitted India’s first email exchange. But email had rapidly been flourishing years before on military and university networks in the West. The push came from the outside to get Dharamsala on the internet and to think about email as an emerging communications alternative. In 1989 Indira Singh - a New York based computer consultant - envisioned a globally connected Dharamsala. And at the same time Thubten Samdup - a Tibetan living in Montreal - was wrestling with the problem of how to bring communication costs down. Ms. Singh sent the first email message over an ad-hoc telephone connection from Dharamsala to the Office of Tibet in New York.

“Hello from Dharamsala”, it said.

It did not take long to convince officials from the CTA that email and the internet were the future of communications from Dharamsala. While discussions of the technology caused many eyes to glaze over the economics did not: email was cheaper and faster than regular mail. The sell was that simple. Not to mention that Tibetan activists in North America and Europe were already using email. Thubten Samdup founded World Tibet Network News (WTN) on Usenet in 1992; and established eleven different listservs in different languages serving various verticals in the Tibetan diaspora. Although the internet existed in India at the time, it was rather rarefied. Research institutes and military networks primarily in urban centres formed the earliest nodes. The further and mountainous reaches of Dharamsala were not on the drawing board, until they were pushed onto the internet from the outside. In 1993 the International Centre for Human Rights and International Development in Montreal donated fifteen thousand dollars to buy three computers and set up email service for the CTA.

Other developments followed apace.

Back in 1989 when Ms. Singh first contemplated an interconnected Dharamsala another computer scientist was sorting out his own vision. Sir Tim Berners-Lee was fiddling with what was to become the World Wide Web. He released the code to the public on Christmas day 1990, and with that the seeds to the mainstreaming of the internet were planted. In 1995 the dial-up internet was introduced for the public in six major cities in India by VSNL. Dharamsala was not included in the rollout, but technical experts in the CTA had been quietly working behind the scenes. In cooperation with North American hackers the CTA’s official Website Tibet.net was launched in 1996 under the stewardship of Thubten Samdup. That same year Sabeer Bhatia, a U.S. based engineer from Bangalore released Hotmail, a free Web email service that garnered 100,000 Indian subscribers within the first three weeks.

The following year five Bay Area technical experts under the supervision of Dan Haig made a forty hour haul from San Francisco to Dharamsala. Their mission was to set up an intranet for the CTA using sixty thousand dollars of their own money, and carrying one hundred and sixty-five pounds of cables and hardware in their backpacks. The mountain had come to Muhammed if that metaphor is not too strained for Tibetan Buddhists. Once again Dharamsala’s international support network kickstarted the local process. Haig and his colleagues wired the seven ministries of the CTA and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives giving them high-speed intranet connections. The also created and email system and dial-up service for many cultural institutions in the Dharamsala area that were too far away to be on the network.

For a town far away in the mountains full of monks and political refugees, Dharamsala was making great strides on the Indian internet. The next leap forward came in the form of an accidental activist. Yahel Ben-David had been a young officer in the Israeli Defence Forces, a successful Linux entrepreneur, and an avid hiker. When he got a call in 1998 to help the CTA install a satellite dish he jumped. What could be better than a three week working vacation in the mountains? Three weeks turned into three months; eventually he relocated to Dharamsala with his wife where he would spend the next eight years working on tech projects. For the next four years Ben-David developed a Local Area Network (LAN) for the CTA and switched everything to ethernet. Monasteries, the Dalai Lama’s private office, and NGOs were all connected. But Ben-David was still dissatisfied.

Given Dharamsala’s remoteness and the cost-prohibitive realities of proper infrastructure development, the region wouldn’t be seeing a high speed internet any time soon. Radio networks were a technical possibility but the cost of licensed solutions was prohibitive. WiFi could have been a solution but was to be illegal for public use until 2004, and then only indoors. Ben-David put his ham radio knowledge to use by tearing part every Linux SOHO (small office/home office) networking device he could find. He founded the Tibetan Technology Centre (TTC) with Phuntsok Dorjee, a non-profit technology company that would train local talent and develop bespoke routers. And finally in January 2005 the Indian government deregulated WiFi for public use. Within hours of that ruling Ben-David put up the first node of the Dharamsala Community Wireless Mesh Network. It had effectively become the first public WiFi network in the country.

Testing and tweaking the nodes was a continuous process. In addition to the demanding mountainous terrain environmental issues had to be factored in: Four distinct seasons which included a heavy monsoon; daily power outages; and last but not least, monkeys. They are particularly destructive creatures when they discover something new to play with. Ben-David settled on tamper-proof cages to encase the routers. Similarly the power outages were countered with solar panels. TTC was putting itself on the map for its innovations internationally, and Dharamsala began to attract more and more technical talent. The town that had once been the preserve of backpackers and Buddhists was broadening to include networking and security experts and open-source developers. None of this was lost on the Chinese intelligence community.

Dharamsala had been an embarrassment to the Chinese ever since the Dalai Lama escaped in 1959. The town has been constantly monitored as have been prominent activists and all of the Tibetan Support Groups. China was particularly displeased when Tibetan activists in Dharamsala partnered with the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) hacking group to protest Google’s operations in China. Increasingly Tibetans suffered targeted malware attacks. Listservs and networks were compromised and sensitive information about the CTA, Dalai Lama and activists found its way back to the Chinese intelligence community. A typical exploit of the time involved forged email headers appearing to come from a friendly source. It would include a PDF file containing a message of support. Once opened a friendly enough document would appear, however, it contained a modified version of a PDF-Encode vulnerability. The exploit silently dropped and ran a file called C:\Program Files\Update\winkey.exe. It was a keylogger that collected and sent everything typed on the affected machine to a server running in China. By 2008 Dharamsala appeared to be on the frontline of China’s cyber-espionage ambitions.

Security researchers at the University of Toronto were approached by the office of the Dalai Lama to examine its computers. Something wasn’t right. The ensuing investigation confirmed that malware had been installed on these machines. They were able to monitor the commands on the infected computers and discover the names of the documents exfiltrated from Dharamsala. Further investigation pointed to specific correspondence stolen and that those behind the attack had gained control of the email servers in the Dalai Lama’s office. One incident was particularly telling. After an email invitation was sent to a foreign diplomat, the Chinese government made a call to the same diplomat discouraging the meeting. And a young woman working for a Dharamsala group making chat connections between Tibetan exiles and Chinese citizens was stopped by Chinese intelligence officers on her way back to Tibet. She was shown copies of her chat sessions and ordered to stop her political activities. What followed was extraordinary.

The Toronto researchers discovered that the Dalai Lama’s Dharamsala network was completely compromised, and also those of Tibetan exile groups in India, Brussels, London, and New York. And then the kicker. Additionally their investigations revealed that the command and control centre infecting the computers from China had also taken over more than 1300 computers in 103 countries. Much of the malware had been attached embassies and foreign ministries, including the Indian embassy in Washington. What had originally been thought to be Chinese interference in the Dalai Lama’s affairs and those of the Tibetan Support Groups turned out to only be the tip of the iceberg. The researchers uncovered an international spying operation. But even when exposed and caught by compelling evidence, Chinese officials denied any involvement and dismissed the researchers report as propaganda.

Despite China’s cries of innocence, the Tibetan community took some satisfaction from the incident. They had been the objects of Chinese interference for years and now the world could see that they weren’t just being paranoid about Chinese hackers. It also garnered wider support in Dharamsala and the Tibetan diaspora for greater security awareness. Groups like Students for a Free Tibet and Tibet Action Institute who had been offering security workshops for years experienced increasing demand for their services. And one thing should also be noted. While the Tibetan community had been on the receiving end of computer hacking and online harassment for years, they never responded in kind. Dharamsala’s response to Chinese aggression has always been non-violent action, online and offline. Two examples come to mind.

The Dalai Lama had always wanted to be able to speak directly to the Chinese people. Thubten Samdup who had spearheaded a number of internet initiatives organised a group of Chinese speaking Tibetans to engage mainland Chinese via chat online. The strategy was simple. Let people on the other end know that they are chatting with Tibetans, and did they have any questions? The internet probed to be a great leveller and one by one some minds were cleared of disinformation about Tibet and the Dalai Lama. Even though this project met with modest success things were becoming worse in occupied Tibet. Beginning in 2009 Tibetans began self-immolating as a desperate form of non-violent protest. Were it not for a network of monks most of the details of the 138 immolations to date would not be known to the world.

From the first self-immolation China initiated an information blackout in Tibet. Foreign journalists were not allowed into Tibet and all communications networks were heavily monitored. However one man managed to get the message out. Gyanak Tsering is a Tibetan studying at the Kirti Monastery in Dharamsala. He escaped from Tibet in 1999 and began experimenting with the internet and mobile technology. Working with security experts in Dharamsala Mr. Tsering began to covertly transfer information to and from Tibet. Mobile phones are the primary communication devices in Tibet and increasingly smartphones are used to access the mobile Web. Whenever a self-immolation is reported in the press it is because Mr. Tsering has been sent the details from Tibet. When he has verified the details with three separate sources in Tibet he releases the information to the press. Some wags in Dharamsala refer to Mr. Tsering as the Jason Bourne Buddhist.

Technical innovation in Dharamsala has always been driven by necessity. Initially it was because the internet was cheaper and faster than conventional communications. Then WiFi development brought more people online because it was easier to deploy than conventional infrastructure. Whatever challenges were faced in Dharamsala there was always some workaround, and others began to notice. Largely as a result of the Dharamsala Community Wireless Mesh Network (later rechristened AirJaldi) open-source developers began flocking to the region. It is now one of India’s more attractive development hubs with IT conferences, new businesses, coding workshops, and hacker spaces. What was once a sleepy hill station emerged as a Tibetan refuge that adapted to the internet and proved that anything was possible.


Note: The post, including the image, is published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, and copyright is retained by the author.


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