Google Latitude for human rights activists

I’ve written about Google Latitude earlier on this blog. What dedicated GPS devices like a Garmin did in the past, most mobile phones can now do out of the box. Location mapping is a new dimension in web services, and while platforms like Ushahidi are in the limelight for using location data via mobile phone to, for example, channel humanitarian aid in Haiti, any organisation or individual can leverage completely free products and services from Google to incorporate location mapping in their work.

Since early 2009 and beginning with Colombo and Kandy, Google Maps has progressively improved the level of detail on maps in Sri Lanka. Many major cities now feature street level data, and main roads across all of Sri Lanka are now plotted. Google Latitude is a free service that allows you to plot on Google Maps your current location, using the web or automatically via a client that can be installed on a range of mobile phones models, including:

  • Google Android-powered devices
  • iPhone
  • most color BlackBerry phones
  • most Windows Mobile 5.0+ phones
  • most Symbian S60 devices (e.g. Nokia smartphones)

Google Location History, which is pegged to Google Latitude, allows one to plot on the web all travel over a certain period of time.

I have a Blackberry Bold 9700 (which has A-GPS) running Google Latitude, set up to update my location automatically, and this is a video of my travels over the 8th of May 2010, at the end of which I took a flight out of Sri Lanka.

Google allows one to plot the last 500 odd location updates, which can even span multiple countries. This is not information available publicly or on any timeline shared without my explicit permission. I uploaded this video only to demonstrate the power of Google Latitude’s location awareness. As Google notes,

  • Your history will not be visible publicly or to your Google Latitude friends.
  • You may delete your entire location history or portions of it whenever you like.

Admittedly, it is a tad disconcerting to see one’s movements tracked with such unerring accuracy. Yes, I’ve chosen to share my current location information, but seeing my daily routine plotted on the web – including my movements from home to and around Colombo and my route to the airport – is a stark reminder of how seamless and sophisticated Google’s technology really is, undergirded by developments in telecoms infrastructure and the sophistication of mobile devices. Some might even argue, and not without merit, that these technologies are invasive, needlessly opening up one’s personal life to Google’s scrutiny.

But consider this.

If one already has a compatible mobile handset, this are technologies that without any further expense can help colleagues, friends and family keep tabs on one’s movements, especially valuable for human rights activists at high risk of personal harm or abduction. All everyone needs is a Gmail account. Coupled with simple measures like calling ahead with an estimated time of arrival when attending meetings and travelling, this is an easy, effective and once set up, completely automatic way of plotting one’s travels on a map which can be accessed by trusted parties in case of an emergency.

It is potentially a life-saver.

And as I have noted before, the potential uses for this in real time election violence monitoring, IDPs and refugee movement tracking, Human Rights and Ceasefire monitoring, peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and disaster management are impressive and beg to be explored.

Citizens Net: Crowd-sourcing human rights violations?

The Sunday Leader recently reported on a new, unique initiative by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) in Sri Lanka to gather information on human rights violations. Called Citizens Net, the news report notes that it is open to logging “issues regarding gender-based violence, the rights of children, the elderly and the disabled.”

However, there is no mention of this on the site itself, which already displays well over 1,500 human rights violations at the time of writing.

Conceptually, this is an unprecedented site in Sri Lanka, opening up a reporting platform for citizens to log their complaints over human rights violations. Unsurprisingly, this is bound to be a controversial idea and its execution rife with questions over how CHA will handle and verify incoming reports. Already, those like Bonaparte on the Sunday Leader site raise the obvious, knee-jerk concerns by those partial to government that a site such as this will be used for war crimes investigations. It is perhaps why the news report suggests a very specific set of human rights violations that will be logged.

Confusingly then, and invariably adding to the chorus line of pro-government supporters is data already in the system relating to, for example, death by air strikes as shown in the map below.

Likewise, the site already contains records on a whole range of human rights violations, including death in detention or police custody, disappearances, torture, killings in indiscriminate attacks such as bombings and deliberate killings of specific individuals. Sri Lanka is, sadly, no stranger to significant violations in all of these categories, but it is unclear from where the site gets its information, and the process of verification employed. All of these categories are politically explosive. Potentially more explosive, no pun intended, are records displayed on the website related to the last stages of the war.

For example, a search for all records related to the Killinochchi District pertaining to air strikes, direct actions which violations the right to life, IED explosions and unexplained killings from 1 January 2009 to 1 June 2009 results in 27 victims. It is not clear who these victims are, how they were logged, and given that none of them are verified, what steps CHA can and will take in the future to ascertain the veracity of this information in a political context almost completely closed to such investigations. This is further exemplified in the topline charts on the home page.

What do these figures mean? How does one interpret the graph on the right, and what is the scale used? It is very difficult to drill down to specifics on the site, and given that most records in the system are unverified, it is not very clear how useful these visualisations are at present.

Tellingly, there is no privacy statement anywhere on the site, and given that logging an entry requires a citizen to put down her / his name, email address and contact number, it is unclear as to what extent CHA will treat this information as confidential, and whether for example it will turn over submission information upon a court order, or as often the case in Sri Lanka, the diktat of the Ministry of Defence. This is an inherent problem of the model of data collection undergirding this site. While the platform itself is well designed, I have significant concerns about using what Ushahidi’s Patrick Meier calls an unbounded crowdsourcing model to ascertain human rights violations, without any publicly available model of verification or data privacy to boot. If the idea of the site was to create and present a publicly accessible score card of human rights in post-war Sri Lanka, populated by its citizenry and verified by CHA, the underlying model has to be revised and more openly published.

The technology as it stands is fine for this purpose, but the lack of clarity over what this site actually does and stands for risks, from the get go, undermining the public confidence it needs to be genuinely useful in human rights advocacy and activism.

New Tactics in Human Rights: A catalogue of ideas and resources

The one time I have participated in a discussion hosted by New Tactics in Human Rights was around a discussion on leverage mobile phones for advocacy and activism. This page alone is well worth a visit to the website.

The group has now come out with New Tactics in Human Rights: A Resource for Practitioners a compelling manual looking at how new media, ICTs and campaign strategies inspired by human rights advocacy and activism from around the world can be leveraged to strengthen the protection of human rights.

The almost 200 page report, available for download here in English and a number of other languages, is essential reading for human rights activists and a vital resource in any library.

Waiting for the Guards – Amnesty International’s video on torture

Unsubscribe is Amnesty International’s new campaign against human rights abuses (by Western Governments including the US and UK) under the guise of the war against terror. 

The following video, featuring Jiva Parthipan as the prisoner, is shocking and one of the most compelling videos against HR abuses I have seen on the web. As the AI website notes,

Waiting for the Guards is not a normal film. What you are watching is a real person going through the excruciating pain of Stress Positions over a period of 6 hours. We decided that the only way to show the horror of this “enhanced interrogation procedure” used by the CIA and others was to show you the reality of it. There is no acting from the prisoner. He is in pain. Real pain. 

The video on YouTube alone has been viewed over 44,000 times. You should also not miss the story behind the production of the film.

I think AI, in depicting the sheer brutality of torture through this video, creates outrage against torture. This is no mean feat. Grabbing the attention of those who in a media rich world are bombarded with information on HR abuses is tremendously difficult. We normalise violence, and egregious HR abuses such as Abu Graib and Guatanamo are media stories for consumption in the morning en route to office, an RSS feed on our desktops or at night on evening news. 

AI’s video and the larger unsubscribe web campaign creates that sense of outrage that is necessary and vital to take actions against government’s that aid and abet torture. 

What I’m interested in is whether, over time, AI and other HR organisations have be more and more visceral in their depiction of torture to combat the inevitable erosion of interest and commitment to stop torture by those moved to action by this campaign. Put another way, over 44,000 people have watched Waiting for the Guards, but how many of them have signed up for AI’s campaign, participated in virally marketing it and raising awareness against torture? And while web campaigns have long tails, it’s also the case that they have a very limited active life – people move on, life goes on, attention is scattered, competing initiatives steal participants, social networks evolve and move on. 

To this end I wonder if AI has any statistics on just what impact unsubscribe has made in the policies of the governments to which the campaign is aimed at and those most at risk of torture the campaign intends to protect. Further down the line, it would be interesting to hear AI’s take on web media and HR campaigns conducted on the web. Far as I can gather, this film is not one that AI will show widely in terrestrial / cable TV networks around the world. In using the web as the primary source of information dissemination and activism, this campaign is accessible by those in the West, but not as easily by those without broadband access in other parts of the world.

Amnesty International’s unsubscribe campaign: Compelling, visceral and cutting-edge

In I am an enemy of the State, I said that Rajapakse regime’s war was not in my name. Amnesty International’s unsubscribe-me web campaign is based on a similar sentiment. As the website notes,

Unsubscribe is a movement of people united against human rights abuses in the ‘war on terror’. The threat of terrorism is real, but trampling over human rights is not the answer. From Guantanamo Bay, rendition, torture and waterboarding – we unsubscribe. 


Jiva Parthipan, who recently emailed me, is featured on this site and his production gives you an idea of the compelling nature of the content featured in the AI campaign. 

What’s of particular interest in AI’s web campaign strategy is the embrace of social networking, email, video and instant messaging as a means of disseminating information on HR abuses as well as awareness about the unsubscribe initiative.


Spreading the word
Spreading the word

I’ve been following AI’s web campaigns for quite a while. They haven’t always got it right. In How not to go about an online petition – Amnesty USA’s online petition on Sri Lanka I wrote against what was a very daftway of going about an online petition against HR abuses in Sri Lanka. 

Clearly, lessons have been identified and learnt. for me is compelling because of Jiva’s performance in “Waiting for the Guards”, which I’ve blogged about separately.

Leveraging web media, video and social networks, AI’s campaign shows us a glimpse of the role of HR defenders in the future and how campaigns support Human Rights will be run, complementing of course the irreplaceable work of HR defenders at the frontlines of violent conflict.

Deciding which mobile phone to bug and how: The incredible flip side of the growth of mobiles

I use the word incredible in the sense of difficult to believe or extraordinary.

In one of the most revealing and interesting articles I’ve read in a while, the London Review of Books looks into the world of mobile phone surveillance. It begins with the example of in the UK, a freely available service (one of many as a quick Google search reveals) that can be used to track the movements of a mobile phone. A related BBC report by Click Online presenter Spencer Kelly notes how easy it is to circumvent the security protocol associated with a phone that is to be tracked.

While I’ve repeatedly mentioned on this blog that social networking linked to proximity thresholds on mobiles could be a killer app in densely populated areas (megacities), the potential of using the same technology to monitor movements and track people is no longer the domain of science fiction or films like Enemy of the State.

But what’s interesting about the LRB article is not this. It is highlighting the Intelligence Support Systems industry (ISS) industry, growing by leaps and bounds, and its links with and interest in the mobile phone and telecoms companies. And the question is poses is a fascinating one,

…identify targets for LI (that’s ‘lawful intercept’) in the first place: it’s a cinch to bug someone, but how do you help a law enforcement agency decide who to bug?

The way ISS companies go about doing this is worth quoting in full,

To help answer that question, companies like ThorpeGlen (and VASTech and Kommlabs and Aqsacom) sell systems that carry out ‘passive probing’, analysing vast quantities of communications data to detect subjects of potential interest to security services, thereby doing their expensive legwork for them. ThorpeGlen’s VP of sales and marketing showed off one of these tools in a ‘Webinar’ broadcast to the ISS community on 13 May. He used as an example the data from ‘a mobile network we have access to’ – since he chose not to obscure the numbers we know it’s Indonesia-based – and explained that calls from the entire network of 50 million subscribers had been processed, over a period of two weeks, to produce a database of eight billion or so ‘events’. Everyone on a network, he said, is part of a group; most groups talk to other groups, creating a spider’s web of interactions. Of the 50 million subscribers ThorpeGlen processed, 48 million effectively belonged to ‘one large group’: they called one another, or their friends called friends of their friends; this set of people was dismissed. A further 400,000 subscriptions could be attributed to a few large ‘nodes’, with numbers belonging to call centres, shops and information services. The remaining groups ranged in size from two to 142 subscribers. Members of these groups only ever called each other – clear evidence of antisocial behaviour – and, in one extreme case, a group was identified in which all the subscribers only ever called a single number at the centre of the web. This section of the ThorpeGlen presentation ended with one word: ‘WHY??’

I’m hugely ambivalent about this sort of power. The bona fides of all telecoms companies in Sri Lanka, and many other countries with regimes more interested in control and containment than democracy, are already suspect. Governments themselves often conveniently confuse anti-terrorism and the post 9/11 war on terror with legitimate dissent on human rights abuses. Together, the worst of telcos and illiberal regimes have a degree of control over movements and communications that, given our dependence on the web, Internet and mobile communications, is unprecendented in human history. I have always thought that Burma was exceedingly foolish to cut off all communications during and in response to the Saffron Revolution. A more sophisticated regime would have simply tracked all the communications, taking a page from China, and then targetted nodes (indviduals and groups) who were responsible for most of the information generation.

ThorpeGlen’s technology makes this easy to do and I doubt very much that they have ethical guidelines (or frankly even a remote interest in human rights) that will prevent them from selling their product to regimes not known for their support of democracy. The capabilities of the system are astounding – able to track multiple SIMs, handsets and devices and remind me of the Semantic Navigator that I toyed around with in the early days of implementing Groove Virtual Office to support the One Text process in Sri Lanka.

Identifying and profiling targets. Click for larger image.
Identifying and profiling targets. Click for larger image.

On the other hand, this technology is here and being further developed. There’s no wishing it away and governments are openly talking about ways to break even themost secure mobile communications channels. Commercial variants are indubitably going to be useful in humanitarian aid and peace related work – to help with location and situational awareness on the ground and complement other technologies such as mobile video, offering real time, immersive updates from the field with little or no user interaction.

A committed interest in combatting terrorism and creating better systems to manage disaster aid work makes it difficult to not get animated by and support these technologies. On the other hand, I am worried about the capabilities of these systems used by governments to hunt what becomes an evolving definition of terrorists and terrorism which soon includes those like myself who are openly critical of the gross abuse of human rights and media freedom by a regime in Sri Lanka hell-bent on a total war to the detriment of democracy.

Many of us are already under surveillance. It’s difficult from where I am to be optimistic about this sort of technology used more as a tool to promote democracy over self-serving wars against terrorism, but I take this as a challenge for all peacebuilders who increasingly use ICTs. Technology after all, is and was never neutral. Our challenge is to use what we have access to pursue our goals, which are strangely yet inextricably entwined with those of the ISS industry.

Information visualisation through Microsoft Photosynth: Potential for human rights documentation?

The video below really says it all. Sadly, Photosynth does not yet run natively on a Mac, but the concept behind this information visualisation is astounding. 

I’ve been following Photosynth’s development for a while (this TED video is a very early version – the programme now has more models and more features) and the potential this already demonstrates to change the way we see and manage digital visual data is quite remarkable. 

Just imagine how useful this technology would be in documenting sites of genocide, human rights violations or just neighbourhoods, places and communities at risk. A large problem of field level HR monitoring and violations logging is the lack of precise geographical coordinates (see earlier post on Geo-location and human rights) as well as, in many instances, a total lack of visual documentation.

A system that integrates Photosynth into its location database can over time create powerful visualisations of location data (from mapping the physical environs to complex walk-throughs of incident locations) that can help in HR protection, advocacy, activism and even in legal proceedings.

Using devices like an iPhone (that geo-codes photos taken), the Ricoh 500SE, a product like Eye-Fi Explore or even through geo-coding photos on Flickr (works great for batches of older digital photos or those that have been scanned in) you can get a wealth of image data to buttress other event and processual data related to HR abuses to create databases of great depth and scope.

This is something I’ll be both looking at closely and pursuing in my own work.