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[liberationtech] MEDIA: Activists Get their Own Smartphone -- Delete if not interested
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Sat Jan 23 19:57:08 PST 2010
The Huffington Post <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/>JANUARY 22, 2010
Rebecca Novick <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rebecca-novick>
Posted: December 9, 2009 08:23 AM
Technology of Liberation? Activists Get their Own
You're in a jail in a remote region of southwestern China. The men who
arrested you have confiscated your mobile phone, which contains photos of a
Public Security Bureau official brutally beating a young man who organized a
protest over the working conditions in a local salt mine. No one knows where
you are and the police officer sitting opposite you is not smiling.
But what he doesn't know is that you have already used your phone to send
the photos over the Internet to a prominent human rights organization who
has distributed it to the international press. Your phone has automatically
replied to a text message inquiry as to your whereabouts with your GPS
coordinates. A friend is on her way to the jail in a jeep with a civil
rights lawyer, and your detention is already being discussed in Congress.
The same friend has remotely erased all incriminating material off your
mobile. Without evidence, the police have no choice but to set you free with
The Guardian--a revolutionary mobile phone software--will embody a number of
such James-Bond-like features especially designed with these situations in
mind. Its developer, Nathan Frietas, who has been writing code since he was
eight years old, is one of a growing community of digital specialists who
are bringing their skills and knowledge to social justice causes. He
describes Guardian as "the first open-source, secure, privacy-focused mobile
phone with a target user base of activists, human rights advocates--people
working for good and change within difficult circumstances." Open source
describes an approach to the design, development, and distribution of
software that allows public access to the source code, and encourages
peer-based collaboration to customize the code to fit the needs of specific
"The exciting thing is that this software is being developed already around
the world by many different open-source developers," says Freitas.
"Guardian, in a sense, is pulling these pieces together."
Guardian's software is especially designed for privacy and security,
including a foundational network that protects anonymity and offers secure
web access. Internet use is the critical issue of mobile phone security, as
mobile phone operators generally have much more control over their networks
than do Internet providers. Guardian also offers encrypted SMS, voice
messaging and walkie talkie options, ingenious ways to hide information, and
instant one button erase all for sensitive content. The software will also
include custom citizen journalist tools as activists often find themselves
playing the role of reporters in places where access by independent
journalists has been restricted.
Tenzin Dorjee, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet, sees the
Guardian phone as "a game-changing tool" for social justice movements. He
points out how Tibetans routinely get arrested, tortured and imprisoned for
phone conversations that are tracked and censored by Chinese authorities.
Freitas himself served for four years on the board of Students For a Free
Tibet and Guardian was directly inspired by his experience with Tibet
activists. A former senior manager at Palm, the mobile technology company
responsible for the Palm Pilot, he became frustrated by stories of activists
having to resort to eating their SIM-cards or smashing their phone and
flushing them down the toilet. "You have to do something better than eating
SIM-cards and flushing mobiles."
The Center for American Progress agrees. In a recently published report, the
liberal think tank calls on the US government to take steps to apply
technologies such as mobile phones to the issue of human rights abuses, and
proposes direct collaboration between human rights workers and new
technology researchers and developers.
"As new technologies are discovered, new human rights applications will
emerge," the report reads. "If the US government is to be the global human
rights leader its citizens want it to be, it will need to ensure that human
rights are a principal beneficiary of the development of cutting-edge
The Guardian software is designed to be compatible with Google Android
mobile phones, 18 variations of which will be on the market by the end of
2009. Anyone who buys an Android phone and has Internet access will be able
to upgrade to Guardian for free, says Freitas. "The vision is that some
young person somewhere in the world goes to a night market, picks up an HTC
[Android] phone, downloads the software off the internet, and we've enabled
someone to have this phone in their pocket. " Once someone downloads the
file onto a secure digital (SD) card, they can then pass the software from
one phone to another, by-passing the Internet.
Security phones with encrypted voice and SMS messaging that scrambles the
data into a form that can't be understood by unauthorized people, already
exist. But their price tag puts them beyond the reach of the average user.
The idea of Guardian is to create a crypto-phone that is accessible for
everyone. Don't get an iphone, says Freitas, because AT&T shares its user
information with the US government and Apple is close-sourced. According to
Freitas, Blackberry's developer, Research in Motion, has collaborated with
various authoritarian states "and doesn't make clear what they've
compromised in their security." Do not buy these products, he says, "because
you can't trust them."
Guardian looks destined to become a must-have for human rights defenders the
world over. But activists aren't the only people interested in protecting
their privacy and security, and the projections for Android phones puts
Guardian on the breaking end of a potentially massive wave. Analysts predict
that by 2012, Android will become the world's 2nd most popular smartphone
platform, pushing iPhone into 3rd place, and that the shipment of Android
phones will close in on 32 million by the following year.
Ben Wood, an analyst with CCS Insight, told the BBC that social networks
"are the fuel propelling the momentum," behind an anticipated explosion in
the sales of smartphones next year--a market that has proved persistently
resilient to the global recession. While the rest of the world is exchanging
jokes, pick up lines and film reviews, however, civil resistance groups and
activists are using communications technology to more effectively network
and organize against authoritarian states. This is an example of what
Patrick Meier calls an *irevolution*--the merger of technology and
individual empowerment that he believes has the potential to change the
balance of power between repressive regimes and resistance movements in
favor of the resisters. Meier, a doctoral research fellow at the Harvard
Humanitarian Initiative, sees the Guardian phone as one example of the
"technologies of liberation" to emerge from this union.
But Meier is quick to point out that, "Just at the same time as civil
resistance groups, civil society groups and transnational networks are
starting to leverage these technologies to create more transparency and
accountability, obviously repressive regimes are not going to just sit still
and watch that happen."
It's a good bet that states like China, that have become expert in managing
citizen access to information, will respond to Guardian by stepping up their
own systems of control. And if they are successful, then people working
against the interests of authoritarian states may be making themselves more
vulnerable by using these phones, especially since their increased sense of
protection will encourage them to act less cautiously with politically
"In the state-of-the-arts censorship system in China, there is a great need
for technology that provides secure data and communication tools," says
Sharon Hom, the Executive Director of Human Rights in China. "The Guardian
phone could be empowering, depending upon specific functions, ease of use,
and price--and its ability to stay ahead of the censors." It's this ability
to stay ahead of the censors (and hackers) that will be the measure of
Greg Walton, a fellow at Toronto University with the think tank SecDev and
consultant for Psiphon--a human rights software project whose censorship
circumvention software is part of the Guardian package--is cautiously
optimistic about Guardian's future. In the Spring of 2009, his group at
Toronto exposed "Ghostnet"--an international computer spy ring that had
infiltrated embassies and government offices around the world. Walton is
part of Psiphon's "red team" that attempts to hack its own technologies to
find possible security weaknesses that the "black hat" hackers (i.e. the bad
guys) might manage to exploit.
Walton describes Freitas as a "software curator" bringing together the best
of open-sourced software. "It may seem counter-intuitive," he says, "but
people have made very strong cases for the inherent security of open source
software." This is because anyone can download the code and read it line by
line, looking to see if it's been tampered with. "Because the code is openly
available to hundreds and thousands of developers, it's far more likely that
they're going to discover security vulnerabilities in the software than were
the codes proprietary or close-sourced, as is the case with Microsoft, for
example, where there is a very limited pool of software engineers looking
for flaws and vulnerabilities."
Walton is the author of a seminal study analyzing China's censorship and
surveillance systems. If Guardian proves to become the tool of choice for
activists, he says, "the Chinese state is going to mobilize significant
resources both technical and human, to monitor and block networks of people
using it." He points out that China now leads the world in internet
censorship, a technology that was once believed to be impervious to
"It's definitely an arms race," admits Freitas, who envisions keeping one
step ahead of the "black hat" hackers through regular system upgrades that
can be easily downloaded, much like Firefox.
The trend of toys for social fraternizing becoming tools for social change
is on the rise. Twitter did not define the post-election Iranian protests,
but it galvanized international concern by bringing the living rooms of the
world into the dust, terror and excitement of the streets of Tehran. Perhaps
more importantly, it created a forum to unite the personal and real-time
narratives of ordinary people that not only challenged state propaganda but
made it seem silly.
The Guardian phone may well have a similar role to play in future movements.
And as ordinary citizens gain increased access to secure communications
technologies, the autocracies of the world may find it increasingly
difficult to dominate the story.
*Rebecca Novick is a writer and founding producer of The Tibet Connection
radio program online at http://thetibetconnection.org*
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