Well-equipped smartphones allow activists to immediately document human rights abuses in real time, but the information can be vulnerable if a device falls into the wrong hands.
From instances of police brutality and rape, to uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, human rights activists have been searching for a way to document human rights abuses for years. When photo and video capabilities were added to mobile phones, activists thought they had finally secured the means to document such abuse.
“New technologies – such as social media and mobile Internet – have fundamentally changed how we shed light on and respond to human rights abuses,” said Tanya O’Carroll, technology and human rights project officer for Amnesty International. “Today, almost anyone with a mobile phone can be a human rights monitor and challenge the abuse of power by capturing and sharing documentation of abuses as they happen.”
As O’Carroll and other human rights advocates have quickly discovered, this highly sensitive information has also been incredibly vulnerable to, and easily obtained by, human rights abusers. And as various news reports have shown, officials have sometimes targeted activists, requesting service providers discontinue their mobile service at
“Imagine one day if every mobile phone – not just a smartphone – could serve as a personal alert device for those who defend human rights,” O’Carroll said. “Imagine if, at the touch of a button, the alert could transmit not just
location but a live video recording of what is happening. Imagine if it could ‘shut down’ email and social media accounts, helping to protect an individual’s wider communications and network from being compromised.”
Thanks to the work of O’Carroll and other human rights advocates,
the public doesn’t have to “imagine” much longer.
Hoping to hamper law enforcement’s ability to track protesters and erase or obtain sensitive video or photo data, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have spent the past few years creating mobile phone apps that keep documented abuses secure from the grasp of human rights violators.
There are currently three apps making headlines as they prepare for real-world testing, since according to human rights advocates, this kind of secure information could change the way the world views, and is informed about, the unjust treatment of people around the globe.
Is this technology needed?
Though not every individual is convinced that the U.S. government is tapping into the phones of activists and protesters, human rights advocates say these apps are designed to be used around the globe.
For example, the Washington Post reported that protesters in Ukraine were issued a text message during a clash with Ukraine’s riot police in January. It read, “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”
The message was likely issued since Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych had recently signed into law restrictions on free speech and assembly rights, which, according to Andrew E. Kramer at The New York Times, would make it a crime punishable by jail to participate in a protest the government had deemed violent.
Though Orwellian, the reality is that it’s not difficult for government officials to send out a mass text to a group of people in a certain area, as cell towers can reveal the location of thousands of individuals.
Although the U.S. government denies that it tracks mobile device locations, documents leaked by National Security Agency-whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the agency tracks about five billion cell phone locations around the world every day.
Referring to the eerie text received by protesters in Ukraine, Kevin Bankston, policy director for the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, said, “This incident highlights how location metadata — contrary to NSA defenders’ claims that such data isn’t sensitive — is incredibly powerful, especially in bulk, and can easily be used by governments to identify and suppress protesters attempting to exercise their right to free expression.”
While protesters and activists in countries such as Egypt, Ukraine, Venezuela and the U.S. have turned to social media to inform the rest of the world of what is truly happening during a revolution or protest, human rights activists have expressed concern over relying on social media networks to relay such an important message to the world.
One of their concerns is that companies like Google and Facebook have been required to share user information with the NSA in the past. In some countries, social networks such as Twitter are censored and some individual users are barred from posting any messages, which means that tweeted information may be less-than-accurate.
Race to build a secure app
In this “digital arms race” between activists and repressive governments, there are at least three different teams of software developers, designers, advocates, activists and trainers, who have come together to create safe and secure mobile apps that allow individuals to “communicate more freely and protect themselves from intrusion and monitoring.”
Their efforts specifically focus on users who live or work amid high-risk situations, as well as those encountering constant surveillance and intrusion attempts into their mobile devices and communication streams.
One such app, InformaCam, was created by the Guardian Project, an organization with over a dozen mobile apps to its credit. InformaCam “uses the built in sensors in modern smartphones as well as wi-fi, bluetooth, and cell tower information to create a snapshot of the environment in which an image or video was captured.”
According to the Guardian Project’s website, the digital date, time and location signatures ensure that the “media hasn’t been tampered with,” while the encryption feature ensures the media “can only be opened by the intended recipient.”
Another app expected to make its way into the marketplace sometime this spring is Amnesty International’s Panic Button, which according to O’Carroll, who created the app, turns an activist’s mobile phone into an emergency alert system.
“A phone might seem like a communications lifeline,” O’Carroll said. “But it’s also the quickest way for the security services to get to an enormous amount of data about where you go, who you talk to and how to find them.
“For example, in Sudan, an arrested activist’s phone was used to set up meetings with contacts and then authorities were there to seize the contacts when they arrived. In Syria, a SIM reader and mapping software on a handheld device was used to map contacts in real-time. We’ve also heard about a device (invented in China) that can quickly crack a pin, identify a phone’s OS and file tree, and pull out all of the data from the phone in as little as 5 minutes.”
While O’Carroll and other human rights advocates tout the benefits of these innovative new apps, she also warns advocates of their shortcomings. “The inherent security risks posed by a mobile phone are not something that can be solved with one app – or any other quick-fix technology for that matter,” she said.
The third app making waves is known as Hancel, a project that was largely funded by the Knight Foundation. Unlike the other two apps, Hancel was designed specifically for journalists.
WIth Hancel, journalists can report aggressions they see occurring in a country and send that information to personal contacts and free speech organizations. The app can also be programmed to monitor journalists working in high-risk areas, and it can send an automated alert when a journalist fails to check-in.