The mobile revolution

Posted: August 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

Christopher Kedzie wrote in 1997, back at the start of the internet age, that “totalitarian societies face a dilemma: either they try to stifle [information and communication] technologies and thereby fall further behind in the new industrial revolution, or else they permit these technologies and see their totalitarian control inevitably eroded.  In fact, they do not have a choice, because they will never be able entirely to block the tide of technological advance.” Kedzie was one of many to express certainty in the power of the technological revolution to invite freedom to the masses and force erosion of the old order.  Whilst authoritarian resistance has been strong and censorship heavy the strength of this ‘tide of technological advance’ cannot be overstated; Although internet-based revolution is still largely an activity of the global elite, the ubiquitous mobile phone has invited new resistance and new freedoms across the world, most recently in North Africa and the Middle East.

The reason for the pervasive spread of mobile telephony worldwide as compared with fixed line telephony and fixed line internet is a simple case of economics; Infrastructural cost for the provision of mobile services is a fraction of that of fixed line services where miles and miles of fibre optic cables have to be laid and in places where government is unaccountable, corrupt or disaggregated and funding mismanaged, the provision of telecommunications is low on a long and convoluted list of priorities.  Also, the provision of mobile service and communication towers is usually privately funded by cellular mobile providers and so does not need to be a budgetary concern for governments.

Authoritarian states like Libya, however, who maintain a protectionist approach to communications, have kept the mobile services under state control.  The main providers of mobile services in Libya are Libyana (ليبيانا ), founded in 2003 and New Orbit (المدار الجديد ), founded in 1996, both state owned and operated.  According to the Libyan General Information Authority’s Statistical Handbook for 2009 (p254), Libyana & New Orbit provided nearly 7 million mobile service subscriptions in that same year covering “more than 95% of all cities, villages and oases and the desert road and the oil fields and most of the towns and roads of the Great Jamahiriya” ( Arabic Wikipedia, 2011). Other sources have suggested a slightly lower figure, but for all intents and purposes the rate of mobile saturation in Libya is over 100%.

Mobile Phones and Protest

The rise of the mobile phone has meant not only an easier and wider access to vital market information, helping to improve livelihoods for people in transitional and developing economies, but also to information about the geopolitical mechanism of global trading systems and the inequity it produces.   A now wider understanding of economic injustices is supporting grassroots tensions.  The mobile phone also enables an open platform on which to express grievances about these inequities between community members and the wider world and, beyond this, a platform on which to organise and disseminate information about protests quickly and efficiently and before anyone in authority might notice and disable the communication.  In 2002 Howard Rheingold coined the phrase ‘Smart Mobs‘ to describe just this: “when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation.”

Mobile broadband and smart phones have facilitated a wider access to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and so called ‘people-powered’ political movements facilitated by the likes of  Nearly 10% of those living in Arab States subscribe to Mobile broadband (ITU, 2011).   Schmidt and Cohen predicted: “Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority” (2010) and the evidence of this has been globally widespread over the last 8 months.  Open source software like Frontline SMS makes it simple to send information from one computer or mobile phone to many instantly.

In Libya, during the early protests and through the conflict, mobile phones with video function have been used to document government supported atrocities and acts of violence against peaceful protesters as well as providing footage of front line activities via Youtube and other video sharing communities.  This type of citizen journalism serves an important role in situations where objective news may not be possible, as in Libya where the state control not only telecommunication services, but also broadcast and print medias, and may act as supporting evidence in convicting individuals of  war crimes in the aftermath of conflict.

Mobile Phones in Conflict

Mobile phones through political crisis carry the potential for being a vital communication tool, with their multi-functionality and portability; With a mobile phone a person has the power to communicate about their personal safety, to organise provisions, to communicate conflict news and to organise support & aid to name just a few uses.

During the election crisis that took place in Kenya in 2008 mobile phones were used to protect  household income.  The M-Pesa mobile banking system was used to help safely manage remittances coming from diaspora communities.  Whilst not widely researched Graham Sherbut studied the impact of remittances through conflict and suggests; “In the midst of conflict (and after conflict has subsided), this income preserves some degree of household security” and that remittances can “bolster [household] economic security in the midst of renewed conflict” (2009).

Limitations and Censorship of the Mobile Phone

Whilst the mobile phone is perhaps the single most powerful communication tool through crises, the potential is all at once rendered obsolete when totalitarian authorities wield power over the service provision.  There are a number of ways that authoritarian states can disrupt mobile phone services;  They may choose simply to cut the service as they did in Libya in February of this year.  Alternatively, the airwaves can be jammed by running radio waves over mobile frequencies to cause enough interference so as to disable the communication.

Privacy and security are major issues through conflict and mobile phones are susceptible to hacking attacks and government sponsored phone tracking programmes such as are reportedly being used in China.  Alongside hacking & tracking, pro-government propaganda is spread as easily as protest information via SMS.  The Centre for Policy Alternatives have put together a guide to Digital Security and Privacy which highlights things for human rights activists to consider when communicating through mobile technology.

Bypassing Censorship

Methods for bypassing service disruptions are, as with internet service attacks, extremely limited.  Peer to peer mobile networks via devices which are bluetooth enabled, for example, are highly secure methods of transferring information but cover only short distances.   The Commotion Wireless software I discussed in my last article would be another viable option, but, as Thomas Gideon of the Open Technology Intitative explained to me, a “USRP [Universal Software Radio Peripheral] is the necessary hardware for integrating 2G telephone access into the mesh [network]”.

In Benghazi local telecommunication engineers have re-established mobile services through reconfiguring the network, but this was down to the fact that the subscriber information was, by chance, held regionally as well as at the head office in Tripoli.

A final point to consider is that when managing emergency communication through conflict “there is an increased need for authoritative official information” (D. Coyle & P. Meier, 2009).  Knowing who your messages are coming from and whether the information being provided is timely and accurate is vital to positive outcomes in crisis situations   Authentication of mobile messages could be a serious challenge for those responsible for managing humanitarian crises.

Further reading and information:

 Sanjana Hattotuwa – ICT4Peace

The Centre for Policy Alternatives

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, Howard Rheingold, 2002.

Assessing the Development Impact of Remittances in a Conflict Environment, Graham Sherbut, 2009

New Technologies for emergencies and conflicts, Diane Coyle & Patrick Meier, 2009

  1. Communication Crisis says:

    FrontlineSMS have a user guide on data intergrity: that ‘is intended to help users to understand, analyze, and address the vulnerabilities, risks and threats that can affect the integrity of the information communicated through the FrontlineSMS platform’, but also serves as a more general guide for the protection of sensitive information transmitted via SMS.

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