Washington — The computer age has come and gone. We are now living in the era of the mobile Internet, says Morgan Stanley tech analyst Mary Meeker, who has predicted that by 2015 more people will be connecting to the Internet with their mobile devices than with their PCs. Considering how the tech capabilities of pocket-sized iPhones, Androids and similar devices are skyrocketing even as they maintain their relative affordability, this is not surprising news.
But people who use mobile technology to connect and share information may be more at risk if their governments are taking an interest in their activities. While computer users can make use of Internet cafes, anonymizers and other tools to help them hide their identity, mobile phones cannot offer the same level of protection.
“Usually, that phone is linked to an individual person for billing reasons or because the government requires registration of SIM cards,” said a State Department official who asked not to be identified. The device “sends location information as well, which is very different from a computer,” the official said.
To help promote the ability of all people to freely speak their minds and associate with whomever they want, the State Department created the Internet Freedom Program office, where officials work with many local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide information on online risks and the ability to make smarter decisions about online activities.
The threats people face from governments seeking to monitor or block online activities are growing, the official said. Repressive governments are increasingly able to do this with “greater sophistication” and “it’s even more worrisome when we start talking about mobile. The ability to track what people are doing with mobile phones is far greater.”
Even where people have been able to purchase prepaid SIM cards for their phones to help hide their identity, “increasingly, countries are requiring individuals to register SIM cards so they know who exactly is affiliated with what SIM card. So that information allows them to track at an individual level what messages people are sending and what information they are accessing and exactly where they are,” the official said.
“There are a lot of challenges for us to work on,” he said.
The Egyptian government made the drastic decision to shut down the Internet and phone services in response to massive protests against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the future, mobile “mesh networking” technology developed by the NGO New America Foundation will allow mobile users to create local telecommunications networks that the authorities can’t shut down.
Using that technology and existing transmitters, people can connect and pass information to each other even if they cannot access the global phone network.
“You could have people putting their videos in a sort of municipal repository somewhere and then there’s someone who knows how to access that and who also knows how to access a VSAT [satellite ground station],” the official said.
Mobile technology also means users don’t have to reveal their identity by physically passing along a CD or USB drive with data that they want posted online. Through the local network, a mobile phone video showing a human rights violation could be passed from phone to phone until it reaches someone with access to the Internet, and “no one even has to know who [the source] is,” the official said.
Local mobile networks are also useful for community organizing and for building morale. By connecting people to each other, “I can feel confident that if I go out in the square today that I’m not the only one. There are a lot of other people who are going to be there as well,” the official said.
ENCOURAGING CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY
The State Department is reaching out to companies as they develop new products to make them more aware of how their technologies may be used against their customers by those who want to track their online activities. The nature of the relationship is developing with the changing role of technology in promoting human rights and democracy.
While companies like YouTube and Facebook have enjoyed credit for how their products have been used to help people share information and connect with each other, “now we’re seeing the other side of that, where companies are now realizing how their tools are being used also in more and more sophisticated ways by countries that want to repress people, and they’re recognizing more starkly what their responsibilities are to keep the users safe who are using these sorts of tools,” the official said.
Many companies are trying to do the right thing, he said. Some are working with the Global Network Initiative (GNI), an NGO founded in 2008 that is dedicated to preventing Internet censorship and protecting privacy rights. The GNI brings company representatives together with human rights organizations and academics to find solutions, and their efforts are already seeing results.
For example, when Microsoft Corporation heard that a Russian NGO risked having its computers taken away and its data confiscated on the grounds that it was using an unlicensed version of Windows, the company quickly issued a blanket license for the program that covered all Russian NGOs.
Facebook has come under criticism for preventing users from making anonymous profiles, since it sees the use of real names as a core aspect of the network. But the official said the company has been very helpful when online activists get hacked or into trouble, and is “making sure systems are set up so governments can’t just complain that they don’t like that, this is abusive, and have opposition or activist sites taken down.”
Some companies are better than others, but the official said the more the U.S. government and others work to show why products should take human rights considerations into account, “the easier it will be for people who want to do the right thing within those companies to say yes, we really need to do this.”