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Lessons from PdF11: 'Don't Carry An iPhone If You're An Activist'

Last week during the Personal Democracy Forum 2011 I attended a breakout session on the Politics of Mobile, At Home and Abroad with panelists Josh Levy, Katherine Maher, Katie Harbath, and Courtney Sieloff. The discussion touched on several topics, but the core of the conversation focused on something Josh Levy said right at the beginning: our mobile phones are political. They're politically empowering, but can also be politically dangerous. And the nature of the networks they connect to are politically decided.

Katherine Maher broke down some numbers:

  • 90% of the world is covered by mobile networks.
  • 5 billion mobile subscriptions exist in the world.
  • In Africa there's a mobile phone for every 2.4 people.
  • In Europe there's over 100% mobile penetration.

She also pointed out that mobile and network technologies are leapfrogging traditional infrastructure, penetrating faster than land lines, roads, etc. By 2020, it's expected that every person on the globe will have access to a mobile phone and mobile data on it.

This has the potential to democratize access to information and change the political paradigm. Political engagement depends on these new technologies. But, as we've seen recently in Egypt, if access is restricted, people's voices could be squashed.

Issues of Security and Privacy

A big problem we face is that mobile communications are, at present, insecure and transparent. More than one person at the conference pointed out that each time you send an e-mail, a text, or surf the web it's like sending a postcard through the mail. Anyone can see it.

Your phone is also giving away your location data – not even just when the GPS is on. Phones ping the network all the time for billing purposes, and it's possible to triangulate your general position from the tower you're closest to. What if the government demanded that data, then used to it to determine if you were near a protest against the current regime?

"People aren't aware of how easily they can be tracked," Maher said. "The advice we give to activists is to take out your battery before you go anywhere. Don't carry an iPhone if you're an activist. As long as you've got a battery, you're registering on the network. Many people are completely unaware of this."

Bridging Old School and New School

Of course, the news is not all bad for mobile, and there are ways activists, organizations, and political campaigns can use mobiles to spread their message. One thing that sometimes gets lost in all the coverage of the Next New Smartphone! is that there are still more feature phone users than smartphone owners. Tech blogs may not think they have to consider the needs of lower income users or minority communities, but those working in the political and social justice arenas don't have that luxury.

Courtney Sieloff, who is the Senior Strategist at Revolution Messaging, talked about the text messaging campaigns she helps run for her organization. She sees texts as a way to bridge the divide between tech-enhanced activism and old-school activism. One of the reasons is that you can't (legally) buy lists of phone numbers to send out text blasts, you have to collect them by hand, which is very old school.

Sending texts is also much faster and more immediate than e-mail when attempting to gather people together on the spot or let them know about changes in plan, location, etc. Text messaging gives you access to people who don't have web connectivity on their phones or possibly in their daily lives.

Balancing Act

Overall, the panel agreed that mobile technology offers tools to citizens and activists that weren't possible or weren't as easily accessible just a short time ago. Mobiles give people access to computing, photography and video capture all in one. They've been used for election monitoring, citizen journalism, representative accountability, resource allocation monitoring, human rights abuse monitoring and more.

Mobile tech bridges divides between younger and older generations – people who find computers complex and overwhelming may feel the iPad is easier to manage – and between disadvantaged groups such as minorities and lower income families.

Our phones are hugely personal devices. But they're not private devices. And the more of yourself you pour into your phone, the more of your own privacy you're violating. There's this tricky balance to maintain.

If that worries you, then the first thing you ought to scrutinize is the networks your mobile utilizes. What does the AT&T/T-Mobile merger mean for network freedom? Could Verizon Wireless pull a Vodaphone and comply with the government to not only cut off internet access but also send out pro-government text messages to everyone on their network? Net Neutrality isn't just about the fight over whether it's okay to use your home Internet connection to torrent TV episodes, it's about this, too.

Check out the PDF11 website for more information on these issues and more talks.