Monday, February 06, 2012

Designing Technology for Freedom: Could a "Citizen Defence Through Truth App" help Syria?

Update: This idea seems to have hit a chord with some.  Please, if you read this, send the link to two others.  With any luck, a few altruistic programmers or others with the skills needed to get communication into the hands of the oppressed.

In a volume no greater than a deck of cards, the general purpose computer now fits in our pockets. Just about all the features we expected, from desktop or notebook computers, now come in smart phones.

Most people know that these devices have cameras, WiFi, microphones, and accelerometers.  Some even use these devices as hot-spots to allow their other devices to access the Internet via the smartphone's wireless data service.

Fewer of us understand what can be done with these technologies when combined in these small packages.

So how can we turn these devices into defenders of human rights and democracy?

We need a "Citizen Defence Through Truth App."

Here are some features I have thought about:

Wireless: Using the full feature WiFi hardware in these devices, the app should provide the ability for a phone to participate in a mesh network comprised of all phones running the app.  This network should focus on low data rates for maximum WiFi distance.  The benefit of mesh networking is in its ability to remain robust as nodes in the network disappear or move.

Anonymity:  Data transfer and storage on the mesh network should work in a manner based on FreeNet and Tor.  This can reduce the risk individuals may face by hosting sensitive information.  Data would be replicated to maintain a robust information store.  As with FreeNet, the most frequently accessed data will be the most robust.

Stealth:  The app must be designed so as to be very hard to find on its device.  It should try and maintain itself in volatile RAM.  Perhaps it could wipe itself if a dead man code isn't entered regularly.

Communication: The app should provide for secure chat, picture sharing, video feeding, web proxying and voice messaging.  Perhaps face and licence plate detection routines could automatically blur video and images to further protect vulnerable individuals.

Taking this a step further, wireless carrier service can be provided by small aerial drones or wireless sites in border states as Internet gateways using satellite data or other methods for Internet connectivity.  Drones could also drop small solar powered relay devices and full featured devices tailored to run the app.  They need be no larger than a deck of cards using current technologies.

This is all doable now!  I hope those with better engineering skills can make it happen.  The truth on the streets of Syria, or any other human rights denying state, must be seen by the world.  There are citizen journalists in enormous peril as we speak.  If we truly do believe in human rights, democracy, and freedom, we owe it to these people to give them the best chance possible.

Update: I'm overjoyed to see my idea being picked up by other bloggers and developers.  Here are a few.  Let me know if I missed you and I'll be happy to update this list. thanks to GildasSapiens thanks to beauseph (My own post)
The Tyranny Daily thanks again to GildasSapiens


  1. Please see our replies on Twitter (@OppressorsOrg).

    1. An option in your App Spec. might be to enable video streamed from a micro-drone, eg:

    2. Thanks for posting it. I can't stop thinking of the myriad uses drones have in the hands of people determined to fight for truth and freedom.

      I can't remember If I replied to your post, or just thought I did. There is a technical university in Europe with some pretty incredible drone control software. Some examples are individual facial recognition, creation of a flight path by sensing common structures and hazards.

      The best part: They gave it to humanity. You can download the source code from the universities web site and put it to work in your own autonomous vehicles.

      I'm looking at building a hobby quad-copter with my son. It will most likely run that very software. Hopefully, the materials will come in less than $1000.

    3. Here is my reply to your post at :

      Thanks again for spreading the idea!

      Thanks for spreading my blog post, Gildas ApCaw Sapiens.

      Often in despicable military conflicts when states turn against their own citizens, communication infrastructure is very likely to be monitored and/or shut down. Monitoring of citizens can lead to arrest, torture, and death. The complete shutdown of communications such as the Internet and cell phone service may allow a regime to persecute its citizens secretly.

      Though there may be many active and willing citizen journalists risking there own lives to capture abuses of tyranny, it is usually quite difficult for the stories to make their way to borders where the rest of the world can aid the suffering of the persecuted.

      Over the last few days, I have been wondering how citizens could maintain their own communications infrastructure in the even their own state is actively suppressing free and open communications.

      I have quite broad knowledge of computer communication and cryptography. Unfortunately, I don't have the depth of knowledge required to expertly use specific specialized technologies. I can see the path, however, due to the serious consequences individuals, using such a technology, face from their own governments, I don't dare to assume I could produce a system with the rugged security to withstand well funded attacks a regime might use to manipulate such a system.

      The system is doable. What this effort needs is people willing to donate some time and skill. Engineers and developers with great skill in designing secure network communications will be desperately needed. People to spread the word to enlist engineers and developers are needed. Testers will be needed. Providers of test hardware will be needed.

      If this project becomes successful, we will vastly improve the movement of truth everywhere there may be conflict.

      I am not doing this to make money. I truly believe EVERY person has the right to both tell and hear the truth.

      The address of my blog post is: The Citizen App Blog Post

      For the time being, this will be the hub for information on the project. Hopefully, as interest grows, it can move to a more development oriented site.


      MAN in the MIDDLE

  2. I saw them. Great ideas.

    As I said, I have broad networking knowledge but not deeply technical enough to pull it off.

    In the mean time, please add your ideas here as well. Until this idea warrants a proper distributed design platform, this is as good a place as any to work on a draft.

    I'm hoping caring people with the required skills will hear of this and offer their expertise.

    Thanks again for your interest. I believe something like this could really foster freedom, democracy, and peace!

  3. more important than the tech is creating a culture of citizen based reporting and rewarding the real journalists for their content, this can be accomplished on the web and extended to apps to capture localities.

    check out jinnwe, these guys are building a platform to awaken the entire world.

    1. I see them both as working hand in hand. Citizen based reporting relies on those citizens to transmit their media to the outside.

      I see the technology as a method to subvert government control of communications, as has been done in Syria and Libya.

      I want to see a tool which makes the work of repressed citizen journalists safer and more effective.

    2. I thought I would double check my comment on these ideas working hand in hand. It appears they certainly could work together.

      Take Syria, for example. If the government managed to cut off all Internet access in the country, jinnWE couldn't work.

      The most important part of my idea is making a way for citizens to make their own network. At one or more points, this network of the people could be connected to the Internet. Perhaps, sympathetic people across a border could transmit to them. Devices could certainly be created and smuggled in. These could connect to the Internet via a satellite data service.

  4. One feture of this app is to let protester spread further with the furthest protester alerting the others of police.

    1. Sure. That could certainly be done.

      The real problem occurs when those in power take actions which disrupt communications such as the Internet and mobile phones.

      The most important function for the app would be to enable capable smart phones to form a mesh network. Basically, it would be a peer to peer Internet. If one node in the mesh fails, the network automatically adjusts.

      In the case of commercial Internet providers in a tyrannical state, the providers can be ordered to spy on the population and/or completely cut off service.

      A decentralized mesh network would be next to impossible to disrupt provided there are enough phones or other devices participating on the network. It is the same reason why music companies, for example, dislike peer to peer file sharing so much. There is no central control. They can't target a single company or individual to stop illegal sharing.

      There is one possibility which could disrupt a mesh network. Depending on how the radio signals are used, it might be possible to shut it down by jamming all the frequencies used by the equipment.

      This is why this idea needs people who can help. This network has to thrive in places where there is a concerted effort to destroy it. There are many different technologies which would have to be connected to make this work. Any one technology could possibly be caused to fail by an attacker. Even worse, if it fails in a way which could expose a resistance member, it could mean lives are lost.

  5. I'd like to say thanks to beauseph with his post:

    Thanks for spreading the word.

    1. Here is the discussion beauseph and I had on reddit:

      [–]MANitMIDDLE 1 point 1 minute ago
      And for anyone who can spare some creative capital but the altruism doesn't do it to em, perhaps bragging about screwing with a regime backed by Russian and Chinese might rock your boats! hahahha

      [–]MANitMIDDLE 1 point 33 minutes ago
      Hey beauseph, thanks for the credit and for dropping by my blog. After a couple of questions from posters, I've expanded some of my reasoning and have come to a better realization of what's needed on the ground.
      Keep me in the loop. I won't be putting this project down easily.

      [–]beauseph[S] 2 points 28 minutes ago
      Cool! Thanks for reaching out to me; I haven't heard from anybody yet. I am setting up my machine for an independent android project I am interested in developing. Do you know anything about what type of phones the Syrians use? Are you focusing on android?

      [–]MANitMIDDLE 1 point 14 minutes ago
      I have no idea. Loaded phones would be easy to smuggle anyhow. The real problem is citizen journalists on the ground can't get stories out.
      I would say Droids are the best choice at the moment. Android is mostly Linux. Linux has some very robust mesh protocols. It may also allow better hardware control of the wifi set. This is critical for a mesh network.
      Worst comes to worst, if it can't be done on Droid due to accessing hardware routines, the phones can always be jailbroken and loaded with linux.
      Anyhow, the best use of my efforts atm is to raise awareness, answer questions, and try and coordinate people. This would be easy if discussions are in one place. My blog for now, but if something better comes along, that's great too.

  6. Some of us have been working on this for a while and just released v0.1a. Check this out:

    1. I have taken a brief look. Great minds subvert alike! :D

      At this point, my only real issue is the choice of distribution. Proteus is fine for larger hardware, however, with the growth in feature rich smart phones, something that works well with the different processor families should be a priority. OpenWRT may be quite useful as an alternate target distro. This would allow all sorts of interesting possibilities with (some incredibly tiny) net appliances and routers.