How to turn a mobile phone into an alert system for activists

As a student activist speaking out against the government, Hassan is at constant threat of being arrested. The Sudanese government tracks and harasses members of the student movement he belongs to. Reports of his friends and contacts being detained, tortured and even killed by the authorities are frighteningly regular.

But Hassan’s network is also well organized. His phone is always on him and he uses it to help organize demonstrations, to record and disseminate video of violent crackdowns against the students and to keep his network updated every minute – a network that stretches from Khartoum to the rest of the globe in the time it takes to send a tweet. 

If he is able to get word out that he’s been arrested, Hassan knows that his network’s response will be swift and structured. The problem is that he knows the first thing the authorities will seize is his mobile phone. And here’s the double danger of not getting word out: the authorities will use the phone book, call log, messages and any open apps – such as G-Mail or Facebook – to identify and track others. Without knowledge of the arrest, the whole network will be easily compromised.

While the details of this scenario are all-too-vividly real, Hassan himself is not. He’s a 'user persona' we’ve created to help us understand the needs of the real individuals faced with this daily reality. Our goal: to build a solution that will turn a mobile phone into a personal 'emergency beacon', ensuring that hundreds of thousands of individuals at daily risk of being seized, detained or ‘disappeared’ by their own governments can get out that vital first alert to those who can act to protect them.

I recently went to Chennai, India, to meet team of mobile developers from global software company ThoughtWorks, to kick off the latest phase of a project we began over a year ago in an open innovation challenge with design company IDEO. At a make-a-thon weekend we collaboratively developed the concept and prototype with volunteer designers and developers. Since then, we’ve spent a year exploring and testing the prototype, learning an enormous amount from activists and technologists in what has grown to become an amazing and committed network of partners and advisers.

This network has helped us to navigate some tricky questions. In many ways, turning a mobile phone into an alert device has been the easy part (you’re probably familiar with at least one free ‘emergency alarm’ smart phone application – there are several out there…). Much more difficult has been navigating the seemingly impossible dilemma of a mobile phone being both an activist’s best, and yet falsest, friend.

A phone might seem like a communications lifeline. 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 five minutes.

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. However as smart NGO projects such as Security-in-a-box and SecureSmartCam have shown, technology can definitely play its part.

In this project, an important principle we’ve adopted is security-by-design. This means that, as much as is possible, we’re designing the system so that it reveals as little information as possible about the recipients who will receive the alert.

Of course, we also know that any tool we create will have security vulnerabilities and that it will be only a matter of time before these are exploited. That’s why we’re putting emphasis on supporting safer behaviours and practises, not just technologies. A big part of this is getting more human rights defenders to think about their mobile phone as an inherently insecure device and to adjust how they use it in their work accordingly.

As we move towards piloting and distributing the app to activists and human rights defenders around the globe, we’ll have to stay sensitive to shifting security trade-offs. In using technology to shine a spotlight on human rights violations around the world it’s vital that we don’t put more individuals in the spotlight of the governments that are trying to silence them.

Tanya O'Carroll is Technology and Human Rights Project Officer at our International Secretariat, leading investigation into how Amnesty can use advances in digital technology to protect and defend human rights.

The activism app Panic Button will be released in beta by August 2013.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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