Colombia and Mexico: problems with national panic button devices for human rights defenders

December 24, 2019

A GPS-enabled “panic button” that Colombia‘s government has issued ito abut 400 persons is supposed to summon help for human-rights defenders or journalists if they are threatened. But it the article claims that it has technical flaws that could let hostile parties disable it, eavesdrop on conversations and track users‘ movements, according to an independent security audit conducted for The Associated Press. There is no evidence the vulnerabilities have been exploited, but are alarmed. “This is negligent in the extreme,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, calling the finding “a tremendous security failure.

Over the past four years, other “distress alarms” and smartphone apps have been deployed or tested around the world, with mixed results. When effective, they can be crucial lifelines against criminal gangs, paramilitary groups or the hostile security forces of repressive regimes. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2014/06/23/today-official-launch-of-ais-panic-button-a-new-app-to-fight-attack-kidnap-and-torture/ and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2014/04/24/the-natalia-gps-alarm-bracelet-wins-golden-egg-awards-in-stockholm/]

The “boton de apoyo,” distributed by Colombia‘s Office of National Protection is a keychain-style fob. Its Chinese manufacturer markets it under the name EV-07 for tracking children, pets and the elderly. The operates on a wireless network, has a built-in microphone and receiver and can be mapped remotely with geo-location software. A button marked “SOS” calls for help when pressed.

A company official, John Chung, acknowledged that Rapid7 notified him of the flaws in December. In keeping with standard industry practice, Rapid7 waited at least two months before publicly disclosing the vulnerabilities to give the manufacturer time to address them. Chung told the AP that Eview was working to update the EV-07‘s webserver software, where Rapid7 found flaws that could allow user and geolocation data to be altered.

Activists have good reason to be wary of public officials in Colombia, where murder rates for land and labor activists are among the world‘s highest, and there is a legacy of state-sponsored crime. The DAS domestic intelligence agency, which provided bodyguards and armored vehicles to high-risk individuals prior to 2011, was disbanded after being caught spying on judges, journalists and activists. Five former DAS officials have been prosecuted for allegedly subjecting Duque and her daughter to psychological torture after she published articles implicating agency officials in the 1999 assassination of Jaime Garzon, a much-loved satirist.

Tanya O‘Carroll of Amnesty International, which has been developing a different kind of “panic button” since 2014 , said the Colombian model is fundamentally flawed. “In many cases, the government is the adversary,” she said. “How can those people who are the exact adversary be the ones that are best placed to respond?”…

In Mexico, the attorney general‘s office has issued more than 200 emergency alert devices to journalists and rights activists since 2013. But there have been multiple complaints . One is unreliability where cell service is poor. Others are more serious: Cases have been documented of police failing to respond or answering but saying they are unable to help.

O‘Carroll of Amnesty International said trials in 17 nations on three continents—including the Philippines, El Salvador and Uganda—show it‘s best to alert trusted parties—friends, family or colleagues. Those people then reach out to trusted authorities. Amnesty‘s app for Android phones is still in beta testing. It is activated with a hardware trigger—multiple taps of the power button. But there have been too many false alarms.

Sweden-based Civil Rights Defenders offers a 300-euro stand-alone panic button first deployed in Russia‘s North Caucasus region in 2013 and now used by more than 70 people in East Africa, Central Asia, the Balkans, Southeast Asia and Venezuela, said Peter Ohlm, a protection officer at the nonprofit. The organization‘s Stockholm headquarters always gets notified, and social media is typically leveraged to spread word fast when an activist is in trouble.

Colombia ‘panic buttons‘ expose activists

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