Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have garnered a great deal of praise for their role in aiding activists in the Middle East, North Africa, Wisconsin and many other places around the world. Photos and videos uploaded to Flickr and YouTube made it possible for anyone to see what was going on in Tahrir Square and to spread the word. When Egypt’s government shut down the country’s internet, the response was shock and outrage, and within a few days, the services were restored.
However, the ready accessibility of Facebook and other sites has a more sinister side. The very authoritarian regimes whom activists are seeking to protest and even overthrow can just as readily see — spy on — the photos, blog postings, Twitter feeds and other information posted on the Internet. In February, when anonymous calls appeared on the US-based, Chinese language Boxun website, calling for people to gather in certain public places in a number of Chinese cities in a ‘Jasmine Revolution,’ the Chinese authorities quickly responded by sending large police forces to those very spots and making it near-impossible for protests to occur.
Groups likes Access and Global Voices have posted online guides to advise activists about how to use social media and other internet sites to their benefit, while still protecting themselves. Says the New York Times:
Brett Solomon, the executive director of Access, said that the guide was created in part from recognition that people often lose sight of security concerns amid the collective euphoria that can accompany swift, large-scale democratization movements like the ones in Egypt and Tunisia. “The eye gets focused on the goal and not the process,” he said, “and during that time, they put their own personal security and their network security at risk.”
But it’s not just the fog of enthusiasm that renders people vulnerable; it’s lack of experience. “There’s actually a whole new group of people who have emerged from being citizens to becoming activists, some of them reluctantly,” Mr. Solomon said. “They’re not necessarily aware of the dangers that are associated with being active online.”
…Facebook accounts were hacked in Tunisia. In Egypt, authorities shut down the Internet and cellphones, and employed technology that turned mobile phones into furtive listening devices, according to the guide.
The Access guide provides tips for keeping communications safer in such a climate. It recommends Gmail, for example, because it uses a secure connection by default, known as HTTPS, like at banking Web sites; Hotmail provides HTTPS as an option, and Facebook began offering it in January. The guide also explains how to disguise browsing histories and how to gain access to banned sites.
Mobile phone surveillance is something that is “tough to evade” for all cell phone uses, according to Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, and a founder of Global Voices, which is an “international community of bloggers who report on blogs and citizen media from around the world.” As Zuckerman says,
“…mobile phones are inherently insecure and that we’re trading off privacy and convenience in using the devices…”
non-profit organization premised on the belief that the realization of human rights and democracy in the twenty-first century is increasingly predicated on access to the internet and other forms of information communication technology
The Access site has suggestions about what to do if you’re subpoenaed (and the differences among Twitter, Google and Yahoo). It was founded after the 2009 Iranian elections and “provides support to human rights activists and pro-democracy activists in closed and semi-closed countries,” to help them “build their technical capacity and … help them advocate globally for their digital rights.”
In writing about the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, I’ve been made even more aware of how closed some countries like Syria are when searching for images from them on a site such as Flickr. A search for Egypt turns up hundreds of photos; one for Syria, only a few taken by tourists some years ago and none of the protests.
The revolution will be tweeted, and blogged and heard about the world over.
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Photo by Krzysztof Urbanowicz.