Crisis Tech at Mobile Active ‘08

It’s been an eventful three days here in Jo’burg. During Day 2 of the Mobile Active 2008 conference, participants were invited to propose topics for self-organized sessions. I think this was a fabulous idea; some 20+ self-organized sessions took place.

I therefore proposed and moderated one of these sessions, which was entitled “Mobile Communication and Crisis Mapping in Conflict.”

The purpose of this session was to bring together those of us interested in making the most effective use of ICTs in conflict zones and repressive environments. Most effective use of ICTs to what end? For conflict early warning/response, civilian protection, nonviolent action and pro-democracy resistance movements, digital activism and disaster response.

Our friends and colleagues from Ushahidi, Global Voices, Digital Democracy, InSTEDD, UNDP, UNICEF and many more actively participated in the discussion, which lasted over an hour. The main issues addressed included:

  • Connectivity
  • Physical security
  • Data security

On connectivity, the use of satellite phones and VHF radios was broached. The former are cheaper in Burma than regular mobile phones. The importance of making phone credit available during Kenya’s post-election violence was emphasized. One participant suggested that Telecoms make SMS’s free during times of crises, or at least provide subscribers with 10 free SMS’s.

We discussed the problem of congested phone networks during crises and one participant made the observation that Telecoms have little to no incentives for creating redundancy. How do we tackle this? Perhaps, as some suggested, by taking a major initiative such as creating a consortium and launching our own satellites. Others suggested working within existing constraints and identifying creative solutions in the meantime; for example, adding information on early response to “please call me” messages.

Another problem vis-à-vis connectivity is when mobile phone towers go down, or are deliberately shut down by repressive governments. I shared information on a project at MIT that seeks to render mobile phones peer-to-peer technologies, much like file sharing online. This does away with the need for mobile phone towers. As long as trusted individuals are in sufficient proximity, your message (text or voice) can be transmitted through your trusted network of contacts.

I had learned about this project from a colleague earlier that day, and I still think that this initiative is potentially the most revolutionary one I heard about throughout the Mobile Active conference. I’ll be following up with the PhD student working on this project in Boston next week.

On physical security, one participant noted the problem of civilians seeking points of high elevation in order to get phone reception; this regularly places these civilians at risk of nearby snipers. One donor in the room highlighted the constraints they face in funding projects that place individuals in danger. Another participant, who has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan pointed out that being caught with a mobile phone can result in torture and death.

The location of mobile phones can easily be tracked even if the phones are switched off, so I emphasized the importance of removing batteries in order not to be tracked. I also recounted a tactic used by activists in Pakistan back in November 2007, who would send text messages our while driving all around the city, and also using SMS2Blog software to update their blogs in the same way. This surefire way prevented the government from locating the activists. Participants also recommended security guides developed for journalists operating in conflict zones. Tactical Tech’s guides were also highlighted.

On data security, participants highlighted the problem of address books in mobile phones not being encrypted. This poses serious problems when mobile phones are confiscated, since they can then be used to track down collaborators. From a technical point of view, encrypting address books would be perfectly straightforward. One participant who has good contacts with the Android team said he would follow up and recommend an encrypted functionality for address books.

There are also tactical measures that one can take by using false names, as one participant did in Palestine before Israeli soldiers confiscated his phone. SMS encryption was another point raised during the self-organized session. While open source software like CryptoSMS exists, they tend to be difficult to use.

Patrick Philippe Meier

2 responses to “Crisis Tech at Mobile Active ‘08

  1. CryptoSMS is free, and extremely easy to use.
    What difficulty did you have?

  2. Greetings, my comment on CryptoSMS was taken from Tactical Tech’s most recent “Mobiles-in-a-Box” kit which was released at MobileActive ’08. On page 50 of the tactical guide:

    “Unfortunately, CryptoSMS seems only to work on new 3G phones and is challenging to use so you should not install it unless you have very serious security concerns.”

    Please do let me know if this information is incorrect.


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