A group of hackers, activists, and reporters convened in Washington, DC last weekend to tackle the challenge of reporting out fraud, corruption, and human rights abuses in places where power brokers have a crucial stake in keeping such things under wraps.
If you’re concerned about the U.S. government’s surveillance programs and its scrutiny of journalists in a crackdown on leaks of classified information, imagine how it must feel to be reporting in places like Mexico and Syria. Participants in FreedomHack did just that, using their skills to create ways for reporters and whistleblowers to avoid detection and the retaliation that would come along with it.
Mexican journalists, security experts, and activists launched the event by briefing the assembled teams in DC on the particular issues they face via a secured Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) connection. From there, the seven teams of hackers and tech wonks used their skills to either build their own platforms and apps or build upon existing technology designed to help reporters surreptitiously contact sources, file reports, upload documents and otherwise protect themselves from danger while performing their jobs — all within the 24 hours of the “hackathon.” At the same time, a team of journalists and experts put together field manuals for reporters on the variety of technology currently available to them.
The conflict in Mexico has so far has killed an estimated 70,000 civilians and caused another 26,000 to vanish. Reporters Without Borders, another of the event’s sponsors, consistently rates the country as one of the most dangerous in the world for reporters where journalists are “threatened and murdered by organized crime or corrupt officials with impunity.”
The Mexican government often prefers to look the other way refusing to acknowledge that the reporters were being killed for performing their jobs to keep the official number down. Further complicating matters for reporters is the interest the Mexican government has in preventing coverage of its alleged abuses in waging that war.
Thanks to funding from large groups like Amnesty International, FreedomHack was not only free for participants, prizes were available for the best creations to be fully developed and placed into the field in Mexico. In the end, the winning group in the modification division managed to update a product of Amnesty International’s called “Panic Button.” Originally a very basic app that would transmit a single short message and your coordinates to a chosen individual, the hackers souped it up to not only run more discretely in the background of reporters’ phones, but also added in a “Guardian” feature to broadcast messages should the user not respond to prompts within a given timeframe.
The winning original product was an app called “PortKey,” a reference to a magical device used for teleportation in the Harry Potter book series. Up to 140 characters worth of information can be encoded on NFC stickers, which reporters can then scan using the app. According to organizers, this can potentially be used to pass along credentials for journalist-only applications currently available in Mexico, which are currently only passed along on paper to avoid interception.
Shauna Dillavou, founder of CommunityRED, one of the partners hosting the event along with Amnesty and Cont3nt.com, spent the last several years working as an intelligence analyst, focusing on using social media to analyze situations on the ground abroad. In the process, she faced the reality that Mexican journalists were being brutally killed or “disappeared” for reporting on the drugs war at the hands of the powerful cartels. When citizens took up the mantle of the fallen journalists, she realized, they likewise faced similar fates.
“There’s no reason for these folks to die,” she told ThinkProgress, noting that many of the same tools she used a an analyst could be modified to help protect reporters. “They’re going like lambs to the slaughter and I just couldn’t let that continue to happen.”
According to Dillavou, Syria is next on the agenda after Mexico, so she’s hoping that some of the products to come out of the hackathon can be modified for use there. “One of the things that we’re very keen on is that the ideas, products, and tools, we can use in Mexico may be the ones we can use in Syria and other places, and they may not be,” Dillavou said. “So we’ll keep that in our backpocket and maybe fund that later.”