Recommendations and ideas to strengthen best practices of Crisis Information Management at the United Nations, New York

ICT4Peace Foundation

This is an excerpt from Interim Report: Stocktaking of UN Crisis Information Management Capabilities that can be downloaded in full from here.

The authors strongly feel it is timely for the UN System as a whole to address, at a strategic level, issues of crisis information management and technology best practice and interoperability – to identify current knowledge of best practice, capabilities and challenges, and plot a way forward to improved response.

Respondents in the discussions felt that IM and KM strategies, frameworks and technologies were constantly evolving as well, making it important to create policies in the UN robust enough to handle current needs but flexible enough to accommodate change. Others noted the importance of using appropriate technology – hardware and software solutions – that could leverage existing (embryonic) IM / KM mechanisms and render them more meaningful and effective. This includes the need to develop of mechanisms and tools that work in austere conditions. Crisis information systems need to be developed that work robustly and are “good enough” to work in conditions of chaos, political instability, poor and intermittent network access, lack of physical security, with democratic institutions under siege and very little control over territory by a central government. Developed for these conditions, it is expected that the crisis information management tools can both scale up and be deployed in other conditions less austere, and also at the HQ level at the United Nations in New York.

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Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Martti Ahtisaari on ICT4Peace

Statement of Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 2008 delivered at High-level meeting to discuss the Interim Report of the stocktaking of UN Crisis Information Management Capabilities, held on 7th November 2008 at the United Nations in New York.

For more information on the stocktaking process with the UN, click here.  

The rise of Big Brother in the UK: The problems for the rest of us

Reading an article on mobile phone surveillance in England, I remembered a scene from the film the Bourne Ultimatum where the character Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, buys a phone off the counter in London and uses it to communicate securely with a reporter. The reporter eventually gets killed and that sadly seems to be the fate of civil liberties and privacy in the UK as well.

As Times Online notes,

Everyone who buys a mobile telephone will be forced to register their identity on a national database under government plans to extend massively the powers of state surveillance. Phone buyers would have to present a passport or other official form of identification at the point of purchase. Privacy campaigners fear it marks the latest government move to create a surveillance society.

Just as with extra-ordinary rendition and Guantanamo in relation to the US, actions such as this have significant repercussions on the freedom of expression in repressive regimes, such as that we find in Sri Lanka. These regimes, ever on the look out for ways to justify their repression and outright violence against democratic dissent and inconvenient truths that embarrass them, often use the argument that Western regimes who criticise them are no better than them.

There is some truth to this assertion. The proposed Data Communications Bill in the UK will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the UK to seriously promote civil liberties and the freedom of expression. If itself becomes what is encourages other democracies to avoid becoming, HMG stands to severely undermine efforts by DFID and other developmental (and conditional aid) efforts, supported by the British public, to strengthen democracy elsewhere in the world. While it is fairly clear now that the British Government does get violent with those who disagree with its policies, it is unclear just how the Government will use information siphoned from the private communications of its citizens against them.

Say for example I was on the CC list of an Al Qaeda spam email that is a sophisticated argument for matrydom. In the interests of my research on countering Islamic radicalisation through ICTs, I forward this to some other colleagues. A lively discussion ensues over email, SMS and voice calls. Under the proposed surveillence regime in the UK, if any one of the recipients was a British citizen living in the UK, does this mark me out as a threat in the data mining algorithms that HMG / MI5 will use to identify embryonic terrorist activity? Will this communication be used against me if I apply for a VISA to the UK? Will I have to pass more stringent customs and border control checks? Will this information be communicated to other intelligence services, or used in conjunction with existing programmes such as Echelon to create profiles that can be matched, discriminated against, sold, exchanged, stored even after death and negatively impact upon my children, friends, colleagues and partners?

There are also serious concerns about the ability of the British Government to actually securely store the information it gathers.

The proposed Data Communications Bill, just as with an issue such as Net Neutrality in the US, are not challenges that are limited to the national boundaries of the UK and US respectively. Their outcomes shape the reality of communications and all that is dependent on it in other countries as well. If the raison d’etre of ICT4Peace is to engender ways through which communications helps peacebuilding, I am yet to be convinced that what the UK is planning on doing will in any way help it combat the root causes of terrorism.

Capturing violent conflict in Kashmir with mobile phones

For many people, recording events on mobile phones has become a hobby (c) BBC
For many people, recording events on mobile phones has become a hobby (c) BBC

The BBC runs a fascinating story today on how young people (who in the story are mostly male) are capturing violent events and processes in Kashmir using their mobile phones. 

The example of Kashmir suggests that the prevalence of mobile phones leads to a situation on the ground that mainstream news agencies could not have imagined even a few years ago. The BBC’s story ends by noting that the Kashmiri conflict has become fully digitalised. War today, as Estonia and Georgia demonstrate, is more than the destruction of bricks and mortar structures or military gains on the geo-physical battlefield. It’s also conducted online – either through outright cyberwar – or a more long drawn out propaganda war on the web. 

Kashmir’s mobile phone totting citizens are the new producers of this propaganda. Bearing witness to the violence of the every day, which is so normalised that it doesn’t even register on the radar of international wire agencies (what bleeds daily does not lead!), the content created by youth and young adults with mobile phone is as the story suggests capturing history in the making.

Of the hundreds of videos on YouTube, I am positive that one won’t get any context, a sense of history or impartiality. That’s still the realm of professional journalism and the more committed citizen journalist. What one does get are snapshots of a polity and society mired in conflict, where ordinary people, with no training whatsoever in journalism, are capturing vital moments, people, events, places and processes that define their lives and in doing so, are collectively producing an oral and visual history.

“This is a new trend in Kashmir. There are a lot of young people moving around the city with such mobile phone recordings,” says Amjad Mir of Sen TV, a local news and current affairs channel. In the restive Batamaloo area in Srinagar, a 29-year-old man, who owns a small mobile phone shop in the city, says he goes out every other day with his phone in search of “interesting footage”. This is the first time ordinary people like us are coming out with our phones and shooting. This is the only way we can show to the world what is happening here,” says the young man, who prefers to be unnamed.

This is bearing witness and what I have for the past two years worked hard to engender in Sri Lanka, where once again, information on the on-going war is limited to the bias of either the government or the LTTE. No one today knows what citizens in Vavuniya, less than 8 hours by road from Colombo, are going through because NGOs and INGOs still have not fully leveraged digital media in general and mobile phones in particular to raise awareness of the human rights and humanitarian conditions on the ground. 

There’s another dimension to this story. Telcos and big business, wherever they are and invest in, want political stability and ROI guarantees. The socio-political architecture that animates both is largely immaterial. This often leads to a resistence of telcos to support, or be seen to be supportive of efforts to augment democratic governance and human rights using their networks, devices, bandwidth and technology. The result of this is that telcos are often more conservative and closed than most repressive regimes. 

Yet, Kashmir is an interesting case where authorities didn’t ban mobile phone usage despite fears they aided attacks by armed militants, unlike in Sri Lanka where all major telcos routinely follow the overt and covert edicts of the Ministry of Defence to restrict and ban mobile phone usage. As a result, Kashmiris may already have more content on its conflict produced that Sri Lankans have produced on theirs, esp. from the front-lines of violence. This content is invaluable in any peace process or process of reconciliation as they capture aspects of violence that could possibly, if unaddressed, sow the seeds of future violence. 

In general, its damn exciting to see mobile phone based journalism kicking off in South Asia. There’s even now a word for these mobile phone totting citizens – camjos

Long may they live and capture!

In the company of giants: International Mediation Institute (IMI) and ICT4Peace

Diane Levin’s blog gives a pointer to the International Mediation Institute (IMI) and a special section on its web site to recognize the work of bloggers writing on ADR and ODR.

Diane Levin aside, there are giants in the field of ADR / ODR featured here. It’s humbling to be in the company of these blogs and bloggers, though I am perhaps the only person without any legal background or training to be featured here!

A little over two years ago, when I started this blog, it was the first and only one on the web to deal with ICT for peacebuilding. Today, it’s praxis and theory is no longer embryonic and there are hundreds of examples of the use of ICTs in everything from conflict early warning to mitigation and transformation.

My interest in ODR was piqued when I realised that the principles behind ADR and especially when technology was introduced as a fourth party shared many similarities with my approach to and understanding of ICTs in peacebuilding.

That’s an interest that will only continue to grow, nourished in large part by the inspiration found in the content of the blogs featured on IMI’s catalogue.

Net Neutrality: Economics and implications for ICT4Peace and ODR

A post on Lirneasia prompted some thought on the linkages between Net Neutrality and peacebuilding, especially the use of the web and Internet for conflict transformation. Lirneasia’s post deals with Obama’s and McCain’s stance on the issue of Net Neutrality, with Chanuka making the point that while theoretically desirable, Net Neutrality has its own significant costs.

A complementary article posted earlier on Lirneasia’s site itself points to an approach by Vint Cerf that provides useful food for thought on the Net Neutrality debate. Cerf’s agrees that broadband networks need to be managed, but he differs with Chanuka (and perhaps Lirneasia) on how. As opposed to usage based billing, Cerf proposes a transmission rate cap where users can “purchase access to the Internet at a given minimum data rate and be free to transfer data at at least up to that rate in any way they wish.” (Cerf’s original post on Google which fleshes this idea out can be read here). 

My concern here is with the appropriation of the Net Neutrality debate by ISPs – both State and Private – under repressive regimes to covertly clamp down on communications used by human rights defenders and peace activists. 

For example, I have been reliably told, though not verified, that a well-known ISP in Sri Lanka (not SLT) is blocking P2P traffic, including Skype. This creates significant problems for some HR org’s and activists on it who use Skype to communicate and collaborate securely. Ironically, some actually switched over to this ISP from SLT because they thought it afforded greater security and Quality of Service. EFF’s Switzerland tool, if Lirneasia or any other organisation ever get around to using it in SL, may offer some insight in this regard.

The point is quite simply this – net neutrality is not just about the minimum or maximum transmission rates, but about the way IP packets on a broadband pipe are managed. If ISPs, under their own misguided policies or those covertly imposed by a repressive regime begin to selectively prioritise and monitor traffic on their networks, it forces those who use the Internet for highly sensitive communications and advocacy to re-think the tools and services they access, and how. And sometimes, there’s no other option for tools used by HR defenders – as in the case of Skype. Despite recent concerns over privacy, there is no other encrypted, free and widely used VOIP tool. And once you start going down this path, it soon becomes clear that traffic discrimination can selectively target other tools, web services and platforms used by HR defenders against a regime to capture, generate, disseminate and archive inconvenient truths – such as human rights abuses. This includes video streaming sites like YouTube.

A final word on economics. As Ars Technica notes,

As unattended apps like P2P and network backup utilities tie up a portion of bandwidth for ever longer periods of time, the old solutions aren’t working as well and congestion is one result. Cerf’s idea would take us back to the old “circuit-switched” days in the sense that each Internet user would instead get a guaranteed line with a minimum guaranteed rate at all times. This would answer consumer complaints about “not getting what I paid for,” but would cost ISPs more cash.

Emphasis mine. Lirneasia’s research in Sri Lanka suggest deplorable QoS across all “broadband” ISPs. Not a single ISP in Sri Lanka guarantees minimum transmission speeds and often advertise speeds that paying customers simply don’t get, or even come close to. Convincing them to upgrade their networks to go down the path Cerf suggest may be impossible, given how enticing the economics of a metered data transmission model looks and sounds, on paper. 

The problem of course is that this doesn’t address the problem of pissant data rates for all. A pay-for-megabyte model will see that though the heaviest users pay up (corporate consumers) and the economic disincentive for individuals to become high volume users will simply not be enough to improve transmission speeds (particularly if, as I suspect, our ISPs will do little or nothing to improve network capacity). The net result will quite simply be more or less the same old, glacial data transfer rates which will anger even more those who can are willing to pay more (like myself) for better connectivity. 

There’s one ISP in the UK offering something I’ve not seen anywhere else – a meaningful IP traffic prioritisation / management plan. It’s from Plusnet. Check it out here. Their explanation uses the same metaphor as Chanuka uses in his Lirneasia post,

Think of it this way, the broadband network is like a motorway. When the traffic is light, all vehicles can move at the national speed-limit. Some lanes of the motorway have been reserved for important traffic, such as buses or emergency vehicles. During rush hour, most vehicles are forced to slow down. However, the traffic on the reserved lanes can continue to travel at their full speed.

Google itself has promised a tool that helps end-users / consumers to see how ISPs manage traffic. No date for the release of the tool, but a more user friendly Switzerland or Google’s tool would be a huge asset for those of us who use the Internet for peacebuilding and ODR, if only to see which ISP we should avoid.

Update – 5 September 2008

Comcast, the cable operator and ISP in the US at the centre of the Net Neutrality debate, has sued the FCC over a decision it made on Comcast’s network management techniques. Ars Technica has the story here.

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 www.mapamobile.com 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.