Early this year, as street protests began spreading across the Arab world, a young Internet expert from Germany, Katrin Verclas, asked Egyptian democracy activists what kind of technology they needed most. More laptop computers? Better access to the Web? Tools to evade censorship? Software to post videos?
The activists' biggest desire, Verclas said, was simple: They wanted safer cellphones.
"They store an enormous amount of information on their phones," she said. "Contact lists. Text messages. Videos."
When a protest organizer was arrested, she noted, all the information on his or her phone — including names and phone numbers of other activists — could fall into the authorities' hands.
"There often wasn't time to delete the information short of throwing the phone into the river," she said. She heard stories of arrested activists removing their cellphones' SIM cards, which hold most of the data, and swallowing them.
"This was a problem we could do something about," said Verclas, who runs a New York-based nonprofit organization called MobileActive.org. She won a grant from the State Department and produced a cellphone application called In the Clear. It includes an erase button so activists can instantly delete sensitive information, and a panic button that sends out a pre-written text message — "I've been arrested!" — including coordinates of the location.
The application is scheduled for official release this month, but test versions have already been distributed informally, phone to phone.
"It's already being used in Syria," said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian opposition activist in Washington. "It helps protect information from the security forces."
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Call it Internet Freedom 2.0.
When human rights activists first began thinking about how the Internet could aid democracy movements around the world, their focus was initially on access: how to help users in China or Iran connect to the Web and receive information free of censorship. So the first wave of spending from the U.S. government and independent groups went mostly to "circumvention," which allows Internet users to see things their governments would like to hide.
But the 2009 protests in Iran and the upheavals of this year's Arab Spring made it clear that democratic activists don't want technology merely to read the news; they want to use technology to make news of their own.
In Iran, YouTube videos showed troops firing on unarmed protesters. In Tunisia and Egypt, Facebook helped young activists organize demonstrations. And everywhere, the most ubiquitous tool of information technology — the lowly cellphone — helped opposition networks grow.
All of which led, of course, to countermeasures by repressive governments. In Egypt, the government turned the Internet off. (That didn't stop the revolution.) In Syria, the government cleverly turned Facebook back on, apparently to enable its secret police to spy on activists and compile lists of their Facebook friends.
"It's like cat and mouse," said Ziadeh. "The regime" — the cat — "is powerful. So the activists" — the mice — "need to be faster and cleverer."
The State Department is spending about $20 million this year on its Internet freedom program, and much of that money is still going toward circumvention. But increasingly, the focus is on protection: tools and training that will enable democratic activists to use technology without endangering themselves and others. "If you want to help democrats succeed," one official said, " the best way is to help them stay out of jail."
So now the program is funding encryption (to hide messages from prying eyes), "anonymization" software (to make it harder for the police to figure out who's sending what) and training in security measures.
Officials acknowledge that there's a risk that distributing those tools widely could mean that some of them end up in the hands of terrorists or rogue activists of the WikiLeaks variety. "Anything that's out there can be adapted for nefarious use," said one.
But many of these products, especially encryption, are already available commercially in some form; well-funded terrorist groups already have them. "We're just trying to level the playing field for the democrats," another official said.
Besides, the software the U.S. is funding can't protect users against sophisticated intelligence agencies or top-flight police forces. "This is basically medium security," said Verclas. "It's not perfect."
These tools have turned out to be relatively cheap. Verclas says In the Clear cost about $400,000 to develop, including distribution and training.
Even in a period of relentless budget cuts in the federal government, this is one program that deserves, and gets, support from both parties. In fact, the toughest criticism the State Department has faced over the past few years is that it wasn't spending enough on such efforts. That controversy is mostly over now; State has spent more than $70 million on Internet freedom since 2008, and it will probably get more. "Technology is always sexy to members of Congress," a Republican aide said.
It would be nice if our vaunted technology industry provided these tools on its own, but that's not how the free market works. "The market is targeted mostly at business customers and consumers who can pay, not journalists in Syria or students in Iran," Verclas said. "In that sense, there was a market failure here."
So it was left to the State Department, rarely considered the nimblest agency in government, and a collection of nonprofit techies like Verclas to fill the gap.
The next time someone tells you the federal government is doing too many things and foreign aid is a waste of money, spare a thought for democracy activists in Syria. Now, thanks to you, they have a panic button on their phones.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times