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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Technology of Liberation? Activists Get their Own Smartphone

December 11, 2009

Rebecca Novick,
Posted: December 9, 2009 08:23 AM

You're in a jail in a remote region of southwestern China. The men who
arrested you have confiscated your mobile phone, which contains photos
of a Public Security Bureau official brutally beating a young man who
organized a protest over the working conditions in a local salt mine. No
one knows where you are and the police officer sitting opposite you is
not smiling.

But what he doesn't know is that you have already used your phone to
send the photos over the Internet to a prominent human rights
organization who has distributed it to the international press. Your
phone has automatically replied to a text message inquiry as to your
whereabouts with your GPS coordinates. A friend is on her way to the
jail in a jeep with a civil rights lawyer, and your detention is already
being discussed in Congress. The same friend has remotely erased all
incriminating material off your mobile. Without evidence, the police
have no choice but to set you free with a warning.

The Guardian--a revolutionary mobile phone software--will embody a
number of such James-Bond-like features especially designed with these
situations in mind. Its developer, Nathan Frietas, who has been writing
code since he was eight years old, is one of a growing community of
digital specialists who are bringing their skills and knowledge to
social justice causes. He describes Guardian as "the first open-source,
secure, privacy-focused mobile phone with a target user base of
activists, human rights advocates--people working for good and change
within difficult circumstances." Open source describes an approach to
the design, development, and distribution of software that allows public
access to the source code, and encourages peer-based collaboration to
customize the source code for the needs of specific users.

"The exciting thing is that this software is being developed already
around the world by many different open-source developers," says
Freitas. "Guardian, in a sense, is pulling these pieces together."

Guardian's software is especially designed for privacy and security,
including a foundational network that protects anonymity and offers
secure web access. Internet use is the critical issue of mobile phone
security, as mobile phone operators generally have much more control
over their networks than do Internet providers. Guardian also offers
encrypted SMS, voice messaging and walkie talkie options, ingenious ways
to hide information, and instant one button erase all for sensitive
content. The software will also include custom citizen journalist tools
as activists often find themselves playing the role of reporters in
places where access by independent journalists has been restricted.

Tenzin Dorjee, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet, sees the
Guardian phone as "a game-changing tool" for social justice movements.
He points out how Tibetans routinely get arrested, tortured and
imprisoned for phone conversations that are tracked and censored by
Chinese authorities.

Freitas himself served for four years on the board of Students For a
Free Tibet and Guardian was directly inspired by his experience with
Tibet activists. A former senior manager at Palm, the mobile technology
company responsible for the Palm Pilot, he became frustrated by stories
of activists having to resort to eating their SIM-cards or smashing
their phone and flushing them down the toilet. "You have to do something
better than eating SIM-cards and flushing mobiles."

The Center for American Progress agrees. In a recently published report,
the liberal think tank calls on the US government to take steps to apply
technologies such as mobile phones to the issue of human rights abuses,
and proposes direct collaboration between human rights workers and new
technology researchers and developers.

"As new technologies are discovered, new human rights applications will
emerge," the report reads. "If the US government is to be the global
human rights leader its citizens want it to be, it will need to ensure
that human rights are a principal beneficiary of the development of
cutting-edge innovations."

The Guardian software is designed to be compatible with Google Android
mobile phones, 18 variations of which will be on the market by the end
of 2009. Anyone who buys an Android phone and has Internet access will
be able to upgrade to Guardian for free, says Freitas. "The vision is
that some young person somewhere in the world goes to a night market,
picks up an HTC [Android] phone, downloads the software off the
internet, and we've enabled someone to have this phone in their pocket.
" Once someone downloads the file onto a secure digital (SD) card, they
can then pass the software from one phone to another, by-passing the

Security phones with encrypted voice and SMS messaging that scrambles
the data into a form that can't be understood by unauthorized people,
already exist. But their price tag puts them beyond the reach of the
average user. The idea of Guardian is to create a crypto-phone that is
accessible for everyone. Don't get an iphone, says Freitas, because AT&T
shares its user information with the US government and Apple is
close-sourced. According to Freitas, Blackberry's developer, Research in
Motion, has collaborated with various authoritarian states "and doesn't
make clear what they've compromised in their security." Do not buy these
products, he says, "because you can't trust them."

Guardian looks destined to become a must-have for human rights defenders
the world over. But activists aren't the only people interested in
protecting their privacy and security, and the projections for Android
phones puts Guardian on the breaking end of a potentially massive wave.
Analysts predict that by 2012, Android will become the world's 2nd most
popular smartphone platform, pushing iPhone into 3rd place, and that the
shipment of Android phones will close in on 32 million by the following

Ben Wood, an analyst with CCS Insight, told the BBC that social networks
"are the fuel propelling the momentum," behind an anticipated explosion
in the sales of smartphones next year--a market that has proved
persistently resilient to the global recession. While the rest of the
world is exchanging jokes, pick up lines and film reviews, however,
civil resistance groups and activists are using communications
technology to more effectively network and organize against
authoritarian states. This is an example of what Patrick Meier calls an
irevolution--the merger of technology and individual empowerment that he
believes has the potential to change the balance of power between
repressive regimes and resistance movements in favor of the resisters.
Meier, a doctoral research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian
Initiative, sees the Guardian phone as one example of the "technologies
of liberation" to emerge from this union.

But Meier is quick to point out that authoritarian states will naturally
respond by stepping up their own systems of control. "Just at the same
time as civil resistance groups, civil society groups, and transnational
networks, are starting to leverage these technologies to create more
transparency and accountability, obviously repressive regimes are not
going to just sit still and watch that happen."

It's a good bet that states like China that have become expert in
managing citizen access to information, will respond to Guardian by
stepping up their monitoring and filtering technologies. And if these
attempts are successful, then people working against the interests of
authoritarian states may be making themselves more vulnerable by using
these phones, especially since their increased sense of protection will
encourage them to act less cautiously with politically sensitive

"In the state-of-the-arts censorship system in China, there is a great
need for technology that provides secure data and communication tools,"
says Sharon Hom, the Executive Director of Human Rights in China. "The
Guardian phone could be empowering, depending upon specific functions,
ease of use, and price--and its ability to stay ahead of the censors."
It's this ability to stay ahead of the censors (and hackers) that will
be the measure of Guardian's success.

Greg Walton, a fellow at Toronto University with the think tank SecDev
and consultant for Psiphon--a human rights software project whose
censorship circumvention software is part of the Guardian package--is
cautiously optimistic about Guardian's future. In the Spring of 2009,
his group at Toronto exposed "Ghostnet"--an international computer spy
ring that had infiltrated embassies and government offices around the
world. Walton is part of Psiphon's "red team" that attempts to hack its
own technologies to find possible security weaknesses that the "black
hat" hackers (i.e. the bad guys) might manage to exploit.

Walton describes Freitas as a "software curator" bringing together the
best of open-sourced software. "It may seem counter-intuitive," he says,
"but people have made very strong cases for the inherent security of
open source software." This is because anyone can download the code and
read it line by line, looking to see if it's been tampered with.
"Because the code is openly available to hundreds and thousands of
developers, it's far more likely that they're going to discover security
vulnerabilities in the software than were the codes proprietary or
close-sourced, as is the case with Microsoft, for example, where there
is a very limited pool of software engineers looking for flaws and

Walton is the author of a seminal study analyzing China's censorship and
surveillance systems. If Guardian proves to become the tool of choice
for activists, he says, "the Chinese state is going to mobilize
significant resources both technical and human, to monitor and block
networks of people using it." He points out that China now leads the
world in internet censorship, a technology that was once believed to be
impervious to government interception.

"It's definitely an arms race," admits Freitas, who envisions keeping
one step ahead of the "black hat" hackers through regular system
upgrades that can be easily downloaded, much like Firefox.

The trend of toys for social fraternizing becoming tools for social
change is on the rise. Twitter did not define the post-election Iranian
protests, but it galvanized international concern by bringing the living
rooms of the world into the dust, terror and excitement of the streets
of Tehran. Perhaps more importantly, it created a forum to unite the
personal and real-time narratives of ordinary people that not only
challenged state propaganda but made it seem silly.

The Guardian phone may well have a similar role to play in future
movements. And as ordinary citizens gain increased access to secure
communications technologies, the autocracies of the world may find it
increasingly difficult to dominate the story.

Rebecca Novick is a writer and founding producer of The Tibet Connection
radio program online at
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