U.S. regulators have developed a “panic button” app, which allows pro-democracy protestors to wipe clean their phone before it falls into enemy hands, as part of a $30 million initiative to support dismantling oppressive dictatorships.
The panic button is just one of the new technologies developed in response to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s campaign to expand Internet freedoms. Recognizing the vital role of the Internet in spreading democracy, the Clinton office is stepping up its funding for new programs to support activists fighting repressive regimes in countries ranging from the Middle East to China.
“We are looking for the most innovative people who are going to tailor their technology and their expertise to the particular community of people we’re trying to protect,” said Michael Posner, U.S. Secretary of State for human rights and labor.
Posner added that the U.S. is embracing media technology as part of its global strategy and points out that it has helped fund the development of about a dozen new circumvention technologies which are being debuted, often below the radar, in hotspots around the globe.
Since January, Middle East protests and mobile and social media have gone hand in hand. The combination was most effective in Egypt where pro-democracy activists ultimately prevailed, but not before the government closed down the Internet within its borders, creating an unprecedented blackout.
Still, protesters were able to continue communicating in spite of this crack down by using a Google service that turned voice messages into tweets.
Smartphones are granting a voice to those who’ve been silenced, as well, with social media providing a platform for them to exchange information. In Tunisia, mobile phones were the first to document the spreading unrest before television producers at Al Jazeera picked up the story. In addition, in Bahrain, citizens used cell phone snapshots and video to shed light on police violence, contradicting official statements of peaceful rallies.
The grassroots movements and technology supporting it show no signs of settling down anytime soon, but some signal a cautionary note amidst the exuberance. The same tools that allow and secure the communications of pro-democracy advocates might also prove useful for drug cartels or terrorist groups, as was the case in India’s 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, where the perpetrators organized the plan primarily using cell phones and the Internet.