The U.S. government has a new tool to help social activists in foreign countries.
Need a little bit of help standing up to a repressive foreign government? The U.S. State Department probably isn't going to give you an airdrop of heavy weapons, but they are thinking about providing an app for your cellphone to help inform (and protect) all your activist friends when you get hauled off for interrogation.
Social networking, especially mobile social networking, played a highly effective (and some might say crucial) role in the success of recent popular uprisings in places like Egypt. The problem with having a social network, though, is that it's a network, and if someone who doesn't approve of what you're doing gets their hands on your cellphone, everyone in your network is potentially at risk.
In an effort to protect democratic activists, the U.S. State Department has been working with an unspecified group of technology providers to develop a "panic button" application for cellphones. If the Secret Police starts firing tear gas grenades and breaking down your door, you can run the panic app, and your cellphone will send out a message to your networking letting them know that you're in a bit of a pickle. It will then wipe out all of your personal data to keep your friends safe, and lock itself out with a screen displaying a picture of Uncle Sam giving the finger.
Okay, maybe not that last bit, but it'll do all the other stuff for sure.
The U.S. is also pursuing technologies designed to allow activists to work around government firewalls, and looking at ways to provide secure text message and data services.
"We've been trying to keep below the radar on this, because a lot of the people we are working with are operating in very sensitive environments," said Michael Posner, assistant U.S. secretary of state for human rights and labor.
Uh, yeah, sorry dude. The other reason that they've been trying to keep things on the d/l is that the more effective and available technologies like these are, the more likely they are be used by the bad guys as well as the good guys. Even so, I'd say that it's totally worth it, if useful and effective tools can make it into the computers and cellphones of the people who need them the most.