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The U.S. Government and Activist Technology

The federal government has uncloaked a previously secret program to provide pro-democracy activists in China and the Middle East with technology tools. One item would be a “panic button” that would wipe clean an activist’s mobile phone. The idea is to prevent the contents of the phone from falling into the hands of the local Stasi, whoever they might be.

Not mentioned in the article, but an obvious candidate for activists’ phones and computers, is a program to stream video data from a mobile phone to a remote, presumably secure, server. Using that would secure an activist’s footage, say of his own arrest, or death, from police erasure. It would also help protect the activists because the police would know that the footage was beyond their reach and other activists could release it at any time. There is nothing new about the streaming program idea; Arthur Clarke proposed something similar using satellites in 1983. Another program in the works is Telex. It is a distributed pipeline for bypassing government’s firewalls, e.g. the Great Firewall of China.

However, many activists will see problems with software developed by the US government.

The first problem is one of trust. The US has a long history of propping up autocratic regimes. Regimes like the House of Saud. Regimes like Mubarack and Nasser in Egypt. Regimes like various ones in Pakistan. Regimes like the Assad regimes in Syria. If you were agitating for democracy in the middle east, how much would you trust a program from the American government? What if there is a back door in these programs that the US could use to monitor your traffic and feed it to the secret police? And how would you know if there was such a back door?

The obvious solution to that problem is to open source the programs: make the source code fully available to anyone who wants to use it, read it, inspect it. And check it for back doors. Even the NSA has taken that route with Security-Enhanced Linux, a major security contribution to the Linux kernel.

Another question is: will these products be available to American citizens? With the Government’s War on Cameras, this is no idle question. When, for example, LAPD considers photographers to be suspicious and you can face a felony rap for videotaping a police officer in public, you need this software!

Is this another example of American hypocrisy: providing high tech tools to people abroad when domestic police departments are beating on domestic high tech activists?

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Monday, 23 October 2017
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