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Android and Privacy Rights in a Digital World

The Internet and mobile technology have empowered people to share, express and engage opinions online, creating one of the most powerful environments to enhance democratic ideals. However, this same technology can and has been used by many regimes around the world to spy on, censor and suppress their people. The battle between these two competing forces will shape civil liberties in the 21st century. It is against this backdrop that Nathan Freitas, the founder of the Guardian Project, explained to me while I was in New York that his organization plans to use technology to ‘empower individuals to safeguard their right to privacy in the digital mobile world’.

For more information on my research visit my site www.howappt.com

To strive toward this goal this small company has built a suite of personal security apps and modifications to the Android operating system from the ground up with security in mind. It is an open-source project, developing fully transparently and licensing all of its code freely: https://github.com/guardianproject

This presentation explains everything that you need to know about the Guardian Project:

The initial focus for the Guardian Project was to aid overseas activists and journalists. ‘Corporations have all the money in the world to protect their data through encryption’, explained Nathan, ‘individuals have that same right but don’t have the means’. These are the current apps created by the Guardian project:

  • Orbot: Mobile Anonymity and Circumvention
  • Orweb: Privacy-Enhanced Mobile Browser
  • Gibberbot: Off-the-Record Instant Messaging
  • Orlib: Android Library for Application Traffic Routing

In some of the most politically inhospitable places in the world these tools are helping mobile journalists expose everything from human rights violations to encroaching censorship. It is also gives ordinary people the opportunity to access potential blocked social media sites, which might seem trivial, however, the events earlier this year in the Arab Spring showed the power of online collaboration against oppressive governments.

Guardian in Action

Given the sensitive nature of this work Nathan wasn’t able to give a specific example of how these tools have been used but he did provide a hypothetical situation to give you a better idea of how the technology works. ‘A undercover human rights researcher could be traveling through a remote region without mobile data service is now able to use their Guardian phone to document local conditions (via camera phone or audio recording) while seeming to just seeming to send a text message. Data captures can be stored encrypted on the device and if a local militia captures the researcher then it would be (almost) impossible to breach our software without significant computing power’.

This interview occurred before the London riots, however, this recent event proved a timely reminder of how encrypted technology such as the Blackberry messenger could be used to organize unlawful activity. When asked his general feelings about the potential of his technology being used for covert illegal communication Nathan replied that the Guardian Project would ‘improve the world more than it will hurt the world’, he continued, ‘people always bring up the argument about criminal or terrorists using this technology to conceal their actions, however, robbers use road paid for by tax payers to escape the police’.

Government and Mobile Open Source

At the heart of the Guardian Project lies the ideal that open source software can make the world a better place. The aim for the organization is for this technology to trickle upwards from small non-profits to government and corporations. There is big potential for open source software in government as Nathan stated, ‘the beauty of Android is that each government agency could build their own version of the software…the State Department could build their own distribution called StateDroid for instance and if there was any security problems then they could patch it themselves’. The problem with other platforms such as iOS, Windows Phone 7 and Blackberry Nathan thought ‘was they’re big black boxes in which you have no idea how they really operate’.

Conclusion – A Tale of Two Guardians

While initiatives such as the Guardian Project try to protect individual’s privacy through mobile technology this compelling article from the Guardian newspaper highlights the potential risk mobile devices may have on internet freedom. Technology has the power to both help and hinder our civil liberties and the path were heading down is still undefined. What is clearer is that the battle for securing those universal rights in a digital age will be long and hard as demonstrated by Rebecca MacKinnon in this recent TED talk.

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