How to turn a mobile phone into an alert system for human rights defenders: AI’s Panic Button

April 17, 2013

image of mobile phone

Last week I reported on the Natalia bracelet and yesterday my eye fell on a lengthy piece posted on Amnesty International‘s Livewire by Technology and Human Rights Project Officer Tanya O’Carroll. It describes how emerging digital tools will help activists and human rights defenders. http://livewire.amnesty.org/2013/04/15/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.

This Hassan is a “user persona” AI created to help understand the needs of the real individuals faced with this daily reality. The 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.

Tanya O’Carroll spent last week in Chennai, India, with a team of mobile developers from global software company ThoughtWorks, kicking-off the latest phase of a project began over a year ago in an open innovation challenge with design company IDEO. …A committed network of partners and advisers has helped to navigate some tricky questions. The alert button is one thing – the more difficult question has been how to stop the security services to get to an enormous amount of data about where the HRDs go, who they talk to.  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.Amnesty-Internationa

Panic Button is set to be released in a beta version by August 2013. It is the first tool to be developed as part of Amnesty International’s technology and human rights initiative, a project that explores the effective use of technology.

2 Responses to “How to turn a mobile phone into an alert system for human rights defenders: AI’s Panic Button”


  1. […] How to turn a mobile phone into an alert system for human rights defenders: AI’s Panic Button (thoolen.wordpress.com) […]


  2. Pretty! This was a really wonderful post. Many
    thanks for providsing this information.


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