US trains activists worldwide in phone, Internet protection


by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) April 8, 2011

The United States is training thousands of cell phone
and Internet pro-democracy campaigners worldwide to
evade security forces in what it calls a "cat-and-mouse
game" with authoritarian governments.

The US government is sponsoring efforts to help activists
in Arab and other countries gain access to technology
that circumvents government firewalls, secures telephone
text and voice messages, and prevents attacks on websites.

"This is sort of a cat-and-mouse game and governments are
constantly developing new techniques to go after critics, to go
after dissenters," said Michael Posner, the assistant US
secretary of state for human rights and labor.

"We are trying to stay ahead of the curve and trying to basically
provide both technology, training, and diplomatic support to allow
People to freely express their views."

Posner told a small group of reporters that the theme of Internet
freedom will be "peppered" throughout the State Department's
annual report on human rights for 194 countries that is scheduled
for release on Friday.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is campaigning hard for
freedoms of expression, assembly and association online
-- what she calls the world's town square or coffee house of the
21st century.

The chief US diplomat has said the protests in Egypt and Iran
fueled by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube reflected "the power
of connection technologies as an accelerant of political, social
and economic change."

The US government, Posner said, has budgeted $50 million in
the last two years to develop new technologies to help activists
protect themselves from arrest and prosecution by authoritarian

And it has organized training sessions for 5,000 activists in
different parts of the world.

A session held in the Middle East about six weeks ago gathered
activists from Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon who returned to
their countries with the aim of training their colleagues there.

"They went back and there's a ripple effect," Posner said.

State Department officials said one of the new technologies under
development is the "panic button," which allows activists to erase
contact lists on their cell phones if they are arrested.

"If you can get the panic button that wipes that (list) clean before
they get locked up, you're saving lives," said Posner.

The new technology has not yet been made available to
pro-democracy campaigners but it will prove useful in places like
Syria, where the authorities simply go out and arrest activists who
use their mobile phones.

The State Department said it has already funded efforts by private
firms, mainly from the United States, to develop a dozen different
technologies to circumvent government censorship firewalls.

"One of them has been very successful in Iran. It's being used
extensively. and we have the download numbers," a State
Department official said on condition of anonymity.

"It's going viral and now that technology is spreading all over
the Middle East," said the official, who declined to name the
technology in order not to endanger the people who are using it.

The State Department is also funding efforts to prevent
governments from launching attacks -- known as denial of service
-- aimed at shutting down websites that might publish an investigative
report or other critical material