New technologies and early warning systems in non-permissive environments

I have been invited to participate in a Conference organized by Oxfam Australia “Early Warning for Protection: Technologies and practise for the prevention of mass atrocity crimes” held in Phnom Penh on the 3-4 November 2010.

I was asked to intervene in the Session dedicated to New Technologies for Early Warning introduced by Patrick Meier with two other incredible speakers, Ambassador Daniel Stauffacher, Chairman, ICT4Peace and Gowthaman Balachandran, independent consultant and former country representative for Oxfam in Sei Lanka.

My intervention was focus on New technologies and early warning systems in non-permissive environments and I decided to use the example of the last project I worked on in Egypt, the “Blogging the Egyptian Election” project, and to use that example to highlight important issues related the use of new technologies in repressive regimes.

This the outline of my intervention.

“In Egypt massive violations of human rights related to the elections, violations of political and civil rights. In May 2008 the emergency law was revised and extended for indefinite time and even if apparently restricted to terrorism and narcotics trafficking but it still continues to deprive political parties and civil society organizations of the rights to peaceful association and limit their ability to conduct activities in the streets without prior approval.

In April 2008 elections hundreds of candidates were arrested to prevent them from participating in the elections, the law still allows for civilians to be trialed in front of military courts if suspected of being part of the Muslim brotherhoods and often those accusations are based on speculations.

The disappearance of human rights activists and opposition representatives is still the normality in the country especially when approaching the elections period.

Those incoming parliamentary elections in November 2010 are consider as critical because they will lead to the presidential elections in 2011 where for the first time the candidacy of President Mubarak father is not given for granted. The candidate of the opposition Mohammed El Baradei is gaining some strong support and Mubarak father may decide to leave the arena free for the election of his son Gamal.

If the regime will feel threaten by the opposition there two ways they can try to change the result of the elections: by winning the election with fraud and so by trying to buy votes or just creates votes as they like, or my massively arresting candidates or intimidating them and prevent anyone else to have the 5% in the parliament that allows a party to present its own candidate for the presidential election.

In this landscape one of the most active political group in the country since a couple of years is represented by digital activists. Especially bloggers are incredibly active and they organize and galvanize people by using social media like Twitter and Facebook and spread information about the repression of the regime using You Tube and blogs.

The U-Shahid project is a project that will try for the first time to centralize those efforts by creating an online platform where bloggers can share their information and where citizens can report any violation of political, civil and individual rights by the regime. The U-Shahid platform will allow not only young people to report via twitter and Facebook but also ordinary citizens to report by calling and leaving a voice message or by texting with their mobile phone.

One of the main important part of this project is the idea is that if there is a violation of any sort in a specific area the people living in this area, if they subscribed to the SMS alerts system, will be able to know it immediately and go on the site.

Different points according to me make this system very interesting in terms of Early Warning System:

1. The first one is that this system has been created and will be managed by Egyptians: Egyptians are the ones that will report, as Egyptians are the ones that will process and Egyptians are the ones that will respond to the violations.

2. The second one is that it is a system that leverage on the power of the crowd: the Egyptian NS can decide to try to send false information to the platform, but the power of numbers can prevent their tentative from having any efficacy. If the national security wants to actually overcome the incoming messages form the populations by sending false reports, they need to have as many nationals security officers as the Egyptian populations, considering that we will consider as verified only information supported by video and pictures.

3. The third one is that this system has the potentiality to actually stop certain violations just by making public the happening of the same violations. In 2007 for the first time an Egyptian court send to prison two police officers for beating and raping a man because of a You Tube video posted by a blogger. The Egyptian gov’t pays lots of attention to what information is given to the public and tries to minimize this information.

Those three reasons are also why the Egyptian gov’t is being very active in trying to limit digital activism and in general the use of ICTs in the country. Information is power and the Egyptian gov’t is very much aware of the meaning of the spreading of ICTs usage in the country.

This year the National Security created a special Facebook Task Force working 24 hours a day to monitor Facebook and has also recruited groups of young people to create Facebook pages to publicize the good work of the government and of Mubarak’s son Gamal. In addition to that a couple of weeks ago the government has also created a new directive for the three phone companies in the country and for the private companies that makes it illegal to send SMS to large group of people, which seems very much designed to prevent the alert system I was talking before to take place. This informal directive also force the phone companies to use a software to filter messages to find out if someone is talking about the president or his son and eventually block his number.

To this date, only one person has been sentenced to prison in Egypt for his online activities, but security services have used detentions and harassment, and in some cases torture, to intimidate online writers. In 2007 at least 4 bloggers where incarcerated or tortured for their on line activities. In 2008 security forces arrested Isra Abd al-Fattah for using Facebook to call for a general strike and held her for two weeks on charges of “inciting unrest”. In May, state security officers detained and beat Ahmed Maher, a 27-year-old engineer who had also used Facebook to call for a general strike to mark President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday.  Many others have received less-publicized threats and low-level harassment. This focus on legal repercussions and extra-judicial intimidation for online activity is the primary method of state control of the ICTs which appears to be increasing.

There are different aspects of this project that according to me are particularly important when talking about using new technologies in non-permissive environments for early warning systems:

1. The first one is that there is an adjunct value in having those systems managed entirely by the local populations: people in the country know what can be done, where things will happen and what to expect from the government and they trust themselves. It is not anymore a matter of responding; it is matter of empowering local population to take actions according to their knowledge of the environment they work in based on their existing social networks. So it is matter of preventing. In Egypt in particular no one will ever trust a system like this one set up by foreigners: Egyptians in general don’t trust foreigners and they will just not report. But they trust their social network and they know how to use it.

2. There is no new system that can work in those settings. New technologies don’t necessarily mean entirely new methodologies: the method used remain the same, the technology can just increase the efficacy and reduce the effort by maximizing the results. The U-Shahid platform doesn’t create anything new, it just relies on what people where doing even before: it relies on the social network already existing in between young people using social networks.

3. Technology doesn’t delete conflicts, it brings it into another field: in Egypt right now there are Facebook battles where activists attack the Facebook groups created by the gov’t by submerging their walls with messages until the group get closed because it becomes an arena of discussion for the opposition. This battle is happening in a complete non violent setting, where it may happened as it did that someone end up in jail, but if this battle was happening in the street I bet much more people would end up in jail or in a torture chamber.

4. There is also another comparative advantage in using new technologies in repressive regime: every time the regime tries to limit the use of technologies, and most of the time they have the means to do it, they are trapped into the fact that new technologies are not only used by the opposition but also by them to communicate and to do propaganda of their own ideas. This means that very rarely a repressive regime will effectively shout down entirely the entire ICT systems meaning literally mobile phone networks and Internet. Even in China and in Iran for example the power of the state control is not enough to be able to shout down everything. In Egypt they cannot shout down SMS entirely so they try to limit their use; on the other side the U-Shahid people manage to send alerts not via SMS anymore but by Twitter.

5. The authoritarian regimes have access to technology and use it, they learn from the opposition movements how to use it and what to do with it. There is no safe way to use technology: if something is dangerous to be done without technology it will be dangerous the same in being done with the technology. The advantage in using technology is the threshold: organization efforts and results can be maximized, so the risk being the same there is much more to gain with less effort. But organization and efforts must be there in the first place. The U-Shahid project has trained on the use of new technologies and the platform almost 130 people. This people had their name and their phone numbers and addresses taken by the NS, and they know they will be watched out. But the fact that everybody else can also participate in the reporting now means that even if all of them get arrested, the NS cannot arrest the entire Egyptian population.”

6. Only the home made technology can be effective: early warning systems based on the use of technologies can be effective only if they are based on the simple principle that the local population knows how to manage them, where to implement them, and if they are the ones that thought of using those means in the first place. This is because only if there are those preconditions the technology chosen will be designed around the existing system. In the U-Shahid project, also thanks to the fact that the Ushahidi platform is really customizable, everything was re-worked out according to the environment.

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