Last updated: December 2013
Apps Helping Activists and Human Rights Defenders
By Tanya O’Carroll, Project Officer, Technology and Human Rights, Amnesty International.
Imagine for a moment that we’re in the year 2018. Mobile technology has radically transformed the global economy and the lives of people all over the world. 8 billion people now reach the Internet primarily through a mobile device and 5 billion own their own handset. Entire communities who just five years earlier were ‘off the grid’ are able to access information, connect to each other and publish content instantly to a global audience.
This is the context in which Marta, a Honduran human rights defender is operating. She works within a highly organised and well trained network of human rights investigators whose purpose is to gather testimony and documentation of human rights abuses to inform national and international advocacy efforts.
In Honduras this means exposing violations by the military and police, as well as abuses by the notoriously violent drug cartels and rich land owners of mining and palm oil plantations that have been sponsoring violence against the indigenous communities that claim communal rights to the land.
As a result of her work, Marta faces constant risk of reprisal. For the past decade journalists and human rights defenders have been killed or disappeared in staggering numbers with complete impunity. The network has to be careful and equipped.
Marta uses her mobile phone in every aspect of her work. Apps like StoryMaker have turned it into a discrete kit for a journalist, with tips on producing and publishing professional-grade news as safely and securely as possible. This is integrated with InformaCam, which allows her to upload fresh footage automatically to a secure server whilst deleting the evidence from her phone should she be arrested. The app also ‘stamps’ the uploaded footage with metadata, such as time, date and location, that will later help to verify it for use as evidence.
In order to keep her communications private, Marta uses Text Secure for sending secure SMS to her colleagues. She has Orbot installed which uses Tor to encrypt all her Internet traffic and routes it via remote computers, masking the location of her Internet activities.
Marta also has Panic Button on standby on her phone should she be physically threatened. On activation, the app triggers an emergency SMS to the closest members of her network and sends location updates every five minutes. Panic Button also signs out of open apps on the phone and integrates with KillPacket to remotely ‘lock down’ email and social media accounts. As it is smartly disguised, the aggressors are unaware the app is running and unable to disarm the alerts.
Finally, Marta uses Pressy to give her one-touch control of all these apps. This allows her to trigger Panic Button or to start the microphone recording discretely should she need to – say, from the inside of a jacket pocket.
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While many of these tools and mobile gadgets sound like something from Q’s laboratory, they are not the stuff of sci-fi imagination. As of 2013, every single one of the apps mentioned exists in some stage of development and many are already being used by journalists and activists in the field.
The problem is that what is possible to achieve with emerging mobile technologies is still leaps and bounds ahead of viable, sustainable products that have been truly designed to meet the needs of those they profess to help.
Recent efforts by developers, NGOs and academics to chart new applications of proven tools for use in human rights work, have revealed a troubling picture of a fragmented, inefficient, and often insular landscape.
These inefficiencies shrink the “promise of technology” for human rights workers and organisations while threatening to create “tech fatigue” among users who are flooded with competing options and information about which tools to use. There needs to be a less fragmented approach if such tools are to be really useful and relevant to the individuals and communities that are threatened by human rights abuses.
A second problem is that, from our perch in the present, we still lack knowledge about how mobile technology interacts with the work of human rights activists. Design assumptions are often based on anecdotal evidence rather than structured research and engagement with the intended users. The result is an arsenal of tools that are created for activists without a deep understanding of how and whether these tools are trusted, relevant and used.
A third problem is that too many technology projects are looking for quick wins and simple solutions. We need to lift our eyes from the development of apps and start thinking more about the mobile operating systems that they are built on and the companies that run them. At the moment there is almost no default security or privacy built into the systems, which makes tracking and monitoring an activist’s communications and activities increasingly trivial (especially as remote-control surveillance software become bread and butter for security services). In this context an activist’s mobile phone may more likely become a weapon used against them than a tool at their disposal.
One option is to build alternatives to mainstream mobile handsets that allow us to achieve some of the same aims. Civil Rights Defender’s alarm bracelet and the incredible series of stealth cameras created by the human rights group Videre are examples of recent efforts. However there is no escaping the trade-off with convenience and access. Niche and expensive devices are a barrier to use whereas most activists already carry a basic mobile phone – that is precisely the power of such a ubiquitous technology.
At least in the short term, more efforts to engage with and include users in a participatory design process will make a difference. That also requires us to break down the silos. There should be more collaboration to create joint approaches to research, testing and training around tools. This is not just a question of creating useful and relevant tools but of security. If people start to install and use these apps in their daily work it is vital that they understand the inherent security risk of a conventional mobile device – something which an app merely puts a plaster on.
There is great potential for mobile technologies to offer direct and practical assistance to journalists and human rights defenders but we would be naive not to recognise the challenges. If we want to see activists like Marta equipped with the mobile tools for robust and secure human rights reporting we need to create more bridges between those designing the tools and the human beings they are designing them for.