Hacking in Iraq, Interview with Jake Appelbaum

Hacking in Iraq, Interview with Jake Appelbaum

467212.jpgI hang out on IRC a lot, Jake Appelbaum (ioerror) popped in the other night and we talking about the satellites he was setting up in Iraq on his vacation along with all sorts of hackery. I was completely fascinated why he was over there and of course curious about what type of “Makers” there are and what they’re building. Hacking the border, internet connections, handing out Knoppix CDs, video blogging, amazing stuff- Jake was kind enough to answer some questions via email. And here they are…

So you’re in iraq? What’s the all about?

I am in the northern Kurdish controlled area of Iraq in a city called Arbil. It’s one of the two capitals of Kurdistan, if that sounds odd, you’re not the only one that thinks that way.

I came to Iraq for a various number of reasons. To start, I’m an avid traveler. I take photographs, I am one of the few geeks that enjoy documenting. A good friend of mine invited me around two years ago and I procrastinated, I had many things transpiring in my life at the time that required my presence.

About four months ago, I had a major life change and I decided to pickup and start traveling, I spent time in Canada, I plane hopped around from Toronto to Chicago to Manhattan, eventually returning to Toronto for a prolonged stay. I am rather happy when I am in Toronto, it’s a nice city.

I decided to keep my promise and I got on a plane to Turkey a few days after my 22nd birthday in April. At that point, I had around two weeks in Istanbul and I went through an arduous journey to get into Iraq.

Part of my motivation for coming here is interest in Iraqi culture, with regard to philosophy, politics and obviously with regard to technology.

Most monotheistic religions are good examples of amazing memetic design. These are very adaptive works. Islam, Christianity, Judaism. They give people faith, hope, ability, promise of a better life. I find this to be very interesting.

From a philosophic and theological view, I am very interested in the middle east and the entire Arab world, Islam fascinates me. In fact in Iraq, there is a culture of people by the name of Yezidi living in the Northern Kurdish area. They’re considered to be a people who worship the devil. I found this to be amazing, that a religion (like Islam) could exist side by side with someone that stood at odds with it’s teachings. Everything I’ve heard of Iraq seemed to indicate this was impossible.

I felt like it was really important to set my bias aside and start learning. I fell the the traditional one way media experience isn’t cutting it. I’m not just a consumer of information, I have things to communicate. I don’t believe everything I watch on T.V. but then again, it’s not like I’m one to sit around and watch T.V. Other people seem to do that though and what they told me about Iraq was very terrible. That most certainly I would die if I were to attempt a trip into Iraq. To take that a step further, I witnessed people having their thoughts delivered to them by their T.V., their news papers, their radio programs. Many of these people accept these broadcasts as fact without any critical thinking. Or they try to think critically about many issues when it’s all coming from the same source. And all of these programs are subject to vested interests, company bias and various forms of censorship.

How does this fit into Iraq? How did the war fit into these faiths? Are the people in Iraq people like you and I? How does the media relate? How does any of this have to to with technology?

It’s interesting to watch people in a place of suffering, in a place of absolutely wretched pain, do the unimagined, they smile. They innovate. They survive.

In my traveling, I’ve found that yes, the Iraqi people are people like others. They’re humans in an immense amount of suffering, in constant danger and yet they’re living their lives as normally as is possible. They laugh, they cry, they’re tolerant, they’re smart.

How’d you get over there, how many flights, what was security like getting in…

As I said, I was traveling around but my direct trip here was by way of Toronto, Canada to Vienna, Austria. From Vienna, I took a flight to Istanbul. From Istanbul I flew to Diyarbakir in the south eastern part of Turkey. This area is generally considered unsafe because of the fighting between the Kurdish forces and the Turkish forces. Once at the airport in Diyarbakir, it was nighttime, I arranged a private car to drive me to the border of Turkey/Iraq. The road was long and it was nearly six hours. We drove along the southern border of Turkey, on the edge of Syria and then into the city of Zakho, Iraq, only changing cars once. The roads were nearly destroyed in many parts and the pollution was so awful that when the sun was rising as we reached Zakho, it was almost blacked out. The waste in the air tasted of heavy metals and fuels. Nothing was alive in the air or in the ground near this border beyond the kinds of weeds that grow in anything.

The security of the border was quite lax, it’s really just a matter of looking western, having a photocopy of your passport and having your passport. There are no bag checks, there are no questions, no one speaks English. You simply make sure you have the right Turkish Visa, the one you’re required to buy upon landing in Istanbul. It costs $20USD and it’s good for multiple entries. As long as you haven’t been inside the country for more than three months, you’ll have no problem exiting.

You’ll cross a bridge protected by a tank and then you’ll be in Iraq.

On the Iraqi side, there is a single guard standing watch facing Turkey, he’s a Kurd. When I arrive, the suns broken through the pollution and it’s shining on his machine gun. He’s facing the sun but he’s not squinting.

You’ll have to hand your passport over one last time for the Iraqi side. They’ll scan it to keep a record, they’ll offer you a seat and you’ll
take it. You’ll wait and eventually, you’ll get a question asked.

Why are you coming to Iraq? The fluency of the English will vary but you’ll be able to understand enough to say you’re a tourist, that’s what I did. You’ll also understand the response; laughter.

They’ll give you your passport and it will have a piece of paper with a stamp on it. If you lose this, you’ll be fined.

This brings us to our first note worthy hack. A border control hack.

In the event that you lose this paper and you exit at the same border, simply tell them you flew into Baghdad. You’re not issued a paper with a stamp in Baghdad. You won’t have to pay the fine, which is entirely alright as far as anyone rational is concerned, it’s extortion.

How are you getting online?

In order to get online in Iraq, you really have two choices. Both of them use the same technology to uplink. If you’re in Kurdistan, you can find internet cafes and believe it or not, they’ve got ADSL.

The ADSL company uses what is known as a VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) for uplink to the rest of the world. So effectively, you’ve got a very large shared network over a very small pipe traveling through space. It’s slow for uploading and the latency is around 1000ms. ssh is basically unusable unless you’re a perfect typist and if you’re reading this, you’re a huge nerd who doesn’t make typing mistakes, right?

The second choice for getting online is to have your own VSAT. I happen to have the resources to borrow someones VSAT (and their network) and as a result, I am able to get online with it. I cut out the middleman of the ADSL and my network is as fast as theirs.

The VSAT I am using is a simple 0.8 meter dish similar to the one recently featured on my webblog
(http://www.livejournal.com/users/ioerror/179521.html). It connects to an indoor unit that essentially serves to bridge the Satellite network with ethernet. I plugin my laptop. This dish is stationary on the roof of a building. With this setup, you get real world IPs, none of that RFC1918 nonsense. Depending on which company you select, you’re almost certainly going to be uplinked into Europe.

These connections are not censored but there is some funny business going on, DNS is hijacked by many providers for example. Most of this is done because of the large amount of time a single DNS lookup can take.

The southern most part of the country, Umm Quasar, is rumored that it’s soon going to have a fiber link from Kuwait. It will be five to ten years after installation before this fiber ever reaches the northern Kurdish area. The fighting will have to stop because they physical infrastructure is destroyed.

Because of all the fighting, wireless is a very positive tool for building the infrastructure needed for long haul networks. You can’t blow up the data between nodes, just the nodes themselves.

I think that wireless mesh networking combined with VoIP is going to make Iraq a very interesting place in ten years. It’s just not worth it to lay wires or fiber cables as long as there is fighting. In many of the northern areas you’ll see microwave towers that are clearly backbones for local cellular companies. It’s just a matter of time before the rest of the country ditches VSAT for a faster connection with better designed networking protocols.

What’s the current state of technology where you go?

You have a hodgepodge of things depending on the location. Most places are very simple, they have modern computers, a modern pbx, perhaps with VoIP tied into it, 100BaseT-FD ethernet, wireless networks protected by rather weak WEP.

I haven’t seen any payphones at all. There must be some, I’ve seen phone cards but no pay phones. I think this is really strange as I normally seek them out to take photos but it doesn’t seem to exist here. But then again, there isn’t a postal system here either. Unless you count the U.S. Military on base mail system which I don’t.

So on the one hand, we have wealthy businessmen and government officials with technology at their fingertips and then we have people who don’t even have payphones or a mail system.

I am pretty sure that says something about the current state of affairs with regards to technology. The people who can afford it will always have it. The people who would benefit the most from it aren’t seeing it.

Computer literacy is very low. Students who have computer science degrees from Baghdad university (refer to my interviews with these people in my webblog) learned using DOS. Their CS program was written inthe 80s and hasn’t been updated since. Most of the modern students learned to program in FORTRAN and we’re talking about the late 90s. No exposure to C, no exposure to Java. No exposure to Free/Open Source Software.

You have a series of photos of satellite installations, who installing these and why?

This was a satellite installation for a voting office in northern Iraq. They required a faster network than the radio T1. The office was being uplinked by VSAT to some other ISP doing the same thing as the ADSL companies I have previously mentioned.

It’s being installed by local Iraqis that have been trained to be network engineers. They’re learning about everything from satellite networking to Gnu/Linux. These engineers represent a growing middle class in Iraq that previously (before the most recent war) did not exist.

What’s the process for getting online with the satellites?

The VSAT used above was the same as the one I described for getting online, once setup, it’s essentially an ethernet bridge. You provide your own router.

Is there an underground market for things like night vision goggles and military gear?

Yes, there is.

In the city of Arbil where I have spent most of my time, it’s a rather weak market. It has night vision gear of various makes and models. Most if it was once U.S. Army gear given to Iraqi soldiers who probably sold it so that they could feed their family.

In other cities, such as Baghdad, it’s possible to get much more interesting things. Everything from NVGS to RPGS (Rocket Propelled Grenades). I hear the going price on an RPG is around $1000 if you’re white and western. Good luck getting that without getting killed.

I’ve personally acquired two pairs of NVGs and they were around $900 each. That’s a bit high but one the days that I went, they were the only ones left.

You’re distributing Knopix CDs too, why’s that? What are people using over there now?

The main reason for giving away Ubuntu and Knoppix is this: People are using windows because it’s what they have. They’ll get to know what they have and they’ll never change. If you get in on the ground floor, you can help subvert the western dominant paradigm before it’s taken hold here.

It helps people to recover data, it helps people to remove viruses and if they’re willing to run Knoppix, Debian Gnu/Linux or Ubuntu, they’re likely to not have virus problems ever again.

I’ve been trying to get the engineers I’ve been in contact with to use Debian for their servers and to understand what it means to be a Unix-Like sysadmin. When they think about everything from the costs to the freedom, the learning curve is the only thing holding them back. So far this has been a success and they love it. Some of them can do a network install in less than 20 minutes and they understand all of it. They went from learning basic unix commands to setting up Apache within a day. They take notes, they read man pages, they use google, they ask for help and they’re fast dedicated workers.

The freedom that Free and Open Source software gives the Iraqi people is something they’ve never had before.

You’re video blogging from Iraq, how are you doing that? (recording, uploading, hosting, etc..).

This returns me to the previous commentary on the media, the media on T.V. and the media we view elsewhere. I decided all along that I would photoblog my trip and shortly after I arrive, I started using a friends camera that had a video mode. It’s not HD ready but it’s good enough.

I have a few major pieces of equipment with me, namely:
A Canon 20D camera, a few gigs of compact flash and with four lenses. This is for still photography.
A laptop with an external USB powered hard drive. The drives are encrypted with loop-aes to protect my data.
A 200mw wireless card.
An iPod (which serves as a backup for important data in my pocket and is useful in case my laptop is stolen/destroyed/seized)
Night vision goggles.

In addition, I’ve got a friend who’s made this trip possible and he’s lending me his Casio ex-z57 Exlim to conduct video interviews.

I copy the videos over into my laptop where I transcode them using mencoder (part of the mplayer packages). I upload them to a collocated server in California run by the people at www.sonic.net for a modest fee per month. Then I make a .torrent of the videos on the server and I update my webblog with links to the .torrents. The server and my laptop are both running Debian Gnu/Linux.

With this method of distribution, I can easily limit my system’s upload rate. Every person that downloads the videos contributes back into the upload pool and the downloads are screamingly fast. This is legal P2P in action. I’m making media, I’m showing uncut, unedited footage and I’m releasing it under the creative commons license so that people can show anyone they like. It’s free for schools to use it, it’s free to show without paying me money.

I’ve been told this is neo-gonzo-journalism of the 21st century. I agree.

The future is circumventing traditional forms of information gathering. Turn off your T.V. and go out into the world. Make! Right? Right!

It seems there’s a lot of ingenuity going on, using spare parts, old equipment, what are some “hacks” you’ve seen?

I’ve seen hacks to combat boredom. I’ve seen hacks to combat warfare. I’ve seen hacks to get networks running.

When you’re cooped up inside, you’re sure to find yourself bored, right? I don’t just mean for a day, I mean months of being inside the same house. You can’t leave or you’re going to get shot, blown up or worse. My friends here have found lots of ways to combat the boredom, the first and foremost actually building adapters for Nintendo Gamepads so they could be used with a normal PC serial port. Entirely done with parts around the house and made into a compact professional design, for that one day they may be able to leave the house again.

Another interesting hack was sent to me by as I previously described them, “A massively talented hardware hacker.” He was in touch with people in the U.S. military dealing with IEDs (Improvised explosive device) that were using radios and cell phones as remote triggers. So he explained to them how to build GSM jammers (to stop the ability for the calling party to connect to the bomb, as the ringer is the detonation device). He explained how to remotely detonate the radio controlled bombs by building a small computer to try all the different privacy codes of a Motorola talk about radio (which is just one variant they’re using).

Those are three of the most interesting hacks. All of them are a form of combat and that’s fitting for a country like this at a time such as this.

Where are you off to next?

It’s going to be something like this: Zakho, Diyarbakir, Istanbul, Vienna, Prague, Vienna, Toronto, San Francisco, LA and then to Bangkok by June of 2005.

I’ll probably head into China/Vietnam/Korea depending on who I meet and what sounds interesting. The tentative plan is to help the native Karen people who are refugees of the very terrible military dictatorship in Burma. I’ll hopefully be teaching them about computers, perhaps about radio stuff and cryptography if I’m really lucky.

And of course I’ll be doing the same thing I’m doing now, only I’m going to be doing it with a better video camera.

Stay tuned.

Jake Appelbaum
Web: www.appelbaum.net
Journal: http://www.livejournal.com/users/ioerror/

12 thoughts on “Hacking in Iraq, Interview with Jake Appelbaum

  1. j0hnnyf1ve says:

    This guy sounds like a self-serving doosh bag.

  2. bonniegrrl says:

    Jake’s blog is one of the few online I read religiously. He’s always been an amazing photographer, but seeing Iraq through someone else’s eyes (other than media and such) has been amazing. It’s rare to see Iraq as something other than just a place we’re fighting a war at.

    Plus seeing odd culture bits like Disney graffiti on abandoned buildings and Pepsi in their stores in surreal.

    Thanks Jake!

  3. tiger234 says:


  4. Ydef says:

    Wow, this guy is The Man!

    Seems to be a two part equation … it must be nice having Jake’s seeming unlimited slushfund that allows him to jetset to ten different cities all over the world within the space of a month, start up a new hobby of collecting $900 night vision goggles, and throw down to lease his own personal VSAT in iraq without batting an eye. Don’t we all wish we could live and play in such luxury?

    But the other part of the equation; to be blunt … Jake has BALLS. Obviously there aren’t many of us that would choose to go to the lengths that jake has for fun and adventure even if we did have his silver spoon of luxury to guide the way. For that I must give jake mad props.

  5. earthywoman says:

    Hi Jake! It’s Gail-your old roomate from the condo in S.R that you, your dad and various others stayed! I am in such awe of what you are doing and especially of the person you are evolving to become! I always knew that you would be and do something special! Be well and stay safe! Love, Gail

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