Hitting the Panic Button

Posted April 7th, 2011 at 3:30 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

…And Whom It Might Benefit Most

There’s been a certain amount of buzz following a series of stories on the development of what’s being termed a “cell phone panic button.”  At first view, it may seem like a sensible, even helpful idea for democracy advocates.  But there are growing worries that it may not just be the “good guys” who stand to benefit.

In essence it would work like this: imagine  pro-democracy activists are working in a repressive nation.  Their mobile phone is most likely a valued tool – serving as an address book, document library, camera, connection to the Internet and access to social networks.   In the right hands, a smart phone can be powerful – and in the wrong ones, it can be exquisitely vulnerable.

Say now this imaginary activist is arrested by security forces.  Before the police can get access to everything stored on the phone, the activist hits an app – a “panic button” – that sends out an alert to all his or her contacts before entirely wiping the phone’s memory clean.

At present it’s just an idea – but one the U.S. State Department considers promising enough to have begun work on.

“We’ve been trying to keep below the radar on this, because a lot of the people we are working with are operating in very sensitive environments,” Asst. Sec. of State Michael Posner told television network MSNBC.  “We’re working with a group of technology providers, giving small grants.”

It’s part of a larger effort addressed earlier this year by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton in her address on Internet freedom.  The State Dept. has allocated $25 million dollars to issue grants to firms working on privacy and circumvention technologies – all to help win the battle for greater Internet freedom.

“We’re operating like venture capitalists,” notes Asst. Sec. Posner to MSNBC.  “We are looking for the most innovative people who are going to tailor their technology and their expertise to the particular community of people we’re trying to protect.”

“There are a lot of things we want to do in society that the market can’t get to,” adds cyber-security professional Bruce Schneier:

“And a lot of privacy applications are like that.   People want privacy but they’re not really willing to pay for it very much.   The CIA has a venture fund that they use to seed technologies that help them – it’s a perfectly reasonable way to leverage all of the smarts we have to do good.”

Schneier speaks from considerable experience.  Currently the chief security technology officer for communications giant BT, he’s also author of several landmark texts on cyber-security, including “Applied Cryptography.”   Mobile security is critically important, he says, precisely because the devices are so small, and can be easily taken and combed for private data:

“That happens in countries all over the world.  That happens in the United States – people come in to the country through Customs, and their mobile phone is seized because of their political activity – they’re supporting Wikileaks, for example.”

Of course, apps already exist that allow people to remotely disable their phones in case they’re stolen, so the ‘panic button app’ isn’t all that new.  However, there is concern that more than just democracy activists would find value in it – so, too, could criminals and terrorists.

It’s a worry that Schneier has little time for:

“Welcome to the real world.  All of our infrastructure can be used by good guys and bad guys.  The good guys drive cars to work, the bad guys drive them as get-away cars from bank robberies.  Good guys use phones, bad guys use phones.  Every technology we build – everything – is used by the good guys and the bad guys.  The neat thing of course is that there are way more good guys than bad guys, good uses far outweigh bad uses.  But of course the bad guys can use it just like they can go to restaurants and have dinner.”

Asst. Sec. of State Michael Posner acknowledges the possible drawbacks of such technological tools.  But he says the possible benefits of helping those in need far outweigh the potential pitfalls:

“The fact is al Qaeda probably has their own way of gathering some of these technologies,” Posner said. “The goal here is to protect people who are, in a peaceful manner, working for human rights and working to have a more open debate.”



One response to “Hitting the Panic Button”

  1. Jon Bell says:

    Great idea!

    Will it also cache the info where only the “good guys” can access it?
    I mean of course the real good guys like: CIA, DEA, Homeland Security, Customs, ad infinitum.
    Will it also have a routine which when a “bad guy” attempts to access the secret cache which will cause a catastrophical battery short, and make the cell phone explode in his face?

    I mean the possibilities are practically unlimited! Would you like more, then please contact me.

    Thanks for the unintended comedy.

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