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Mobile technology has radically transformed the global economy and the lives of people all over the world. This is the context in which Marta, a Honduran human rights defender is operating. She works within a highly organised and well trained network of human rights investigators whose purpose is to gather testimony and documentation of human rights abuses to inform national and international advocacy efforts.
In Honduras this means exposing violations by the military and police, as well as abuses by the notoriously violent drug cartels and rich land owners of mining and palm oil plantations that have been sponsoring violence against the indigenous communities that claim communal rights to the land.
As a result of her work, Marta faces constant risk of reprisal. For the past decade journalists and human rights defenders have been killed or disappeared in staggering numbers with complete impunity.
The network has to be careful and equipped. Using technology Marta uses her mobile phone in every aspect of her work.
Apps like StoryMaker have turned it into a discrete kit for a journalist, with tips on producing and publishing professional-grade news as safely and securely as possible.
This is integrated with InformaCamwhich allows her to upload fresh footage automatically to a secure server whilst deleting the evidence from her phone should she be arrested. She has Orbot installed which uses Tor to encrypt all her Internet traffic and routes it via remote computers, masking the location of her Internet activities.
Marta also has Panic Button on standby on her phone should she be physically threatened. On activation, the app triggers an emergency SMS to the closest members of her network and sends location updates every five minutes.
As it is smartly disguised, the aggressors are unaware the app is running and unable to disarm the alerts. Finally, Marta uses Pressy to give her one-touch control of all these apps.
This allows her to trigger Panic Button or to start the microphone recording discretely should she need to — say, from the inside of a jacket pocket. As ofevery single one of the apps mentioned exists in some stage of development and many are already being used by journalists and activists in the field.
The problem is that what is possible to achieve with emerging mobile technologies is still leaps and bounds ahead of viable, sustainable products that have been truly designed to meet the needs of those they profess to help.
Recent efforts by developers, NGOs and academics to chart new applications of proven tools for use in human rights work, have revealed a troubling picture of a fragmented, inefficient, and often insular landscape.
There needs to be a less fragmented approach if such tools are to be really useful and relevant to the individuals and communities that are threatened by human rights abuses.
A second problem is that, from our perch in the present, we still lack knowledge about how mobile technology interacts with the work of human rights activists.
Design assumptions are often based on anecdotal evidence rather than structured research and engagement with the intended users. The result is an arsenal of tools that are created for activists without a deep understanding of how and whether these tools are trusted, relevant and used. A third problem is that too many technology projects are looking for quick wins and simple solutions.
We need to lift our eyes from the development of apps and start thinking more about the mobile operating systems that they are built on and the companies that run them. New ideas One option is to build alternatives to mainstream mobile handsets that allow us to achieve some of the same aims.
However there is no escaping the trade-off with convenience and access. Niche and expensive devices are a barrier to use whereas most activists already carry a basic mobile phone — that is precisely the power of such a ubiquitous technology.
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