A lifeline for activists

Amnesty’s mobile alert system for activists among 10 finalists nominated for Google’s Global Impact Award.VOTE NOW – before 31 May – and make this big idea a reality.

Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation on Amnesty’s Panic Button app, shortlisted for Google’s Global Impact Award

I first came into contact with the Amnesty Panic Button project in November last year. I’d joined a group of human rights activists from around the world at an Amnesty event in Nairobi, Kenya, focused on the impact of technology for human rights. I had never seen anything like it before in my work. I immediately saw what a powerful tool it could be.

Panic Button is an application that enables activists at risk to broadcast their location periodically to a pre-determined list of contacts. With a push of a button, an sms message goes to the network they’ve selected. For their security, this never shows in the phone outbox and the app runs secretly in the background of the phone. Now Panic Button has been picked as one of 10 finalist projects for Google’s Global Impact Challenge, a one-off opportunity to win £500,000 to turn a big idea into reality.

An invaluable systemThe system would be invaluable for activists like me. I am the founder of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan. We work to support all civil society actors in Pakistan to be safe and savvy users of technology when they exercise and defend their right to free expression.

For those of us whose work focuses on the effective and safe use of information and communication technologies for human rights work, we know only too well that technology can be a double-edged sword. As an activist I have faced violence myself and know what it is to live in fear. Last year, when 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai was shot by a Taliban gunman on a school bus for having the courage to stand up for girls education, I, too, became a target for speaking out and death threats against me streamed in online.

We are not the only ones. Historic elections were held in Pakistan for the first time at the beginning of May, but they were marred by violence.  The night before the elections, senior politician Zohra Shahid Hussain was gunned down. Her mobile was snatched in the attack. Why would the killers want her mobile phone? Is it true that our smartphones make us vulnerable rather than empowered and connected to millions of others?

There are thousands more in Pakistan who live under the daily threat of violence: an activist monitoring election data;  a polling agent assigned to work in sensitive locations; an activist in Balochistan, fighting for justice on behalf of those who have been abducted by state security forces. Balochistan is the biggest province of Pakistan and also the least secure and least talked about of all the areas.

Getting that first alert outPanic Button would allow hundreds of thousands of activists at risk of being harassed, detained and abducted by their own governments to get that important first alert out – of their location. It is not the end product though. Since security applications are always exploited with the passage of time, Amnesty will keep working to strengthen and make it more secure.

As an ongoing advisor to the Panic Button project, I am excited to think about what will become possible if it were to win a Google Global Impact Award so that activist networks around the world could be equipped to use the system safely as part of their security protocols.

Nighat Dad is Executive Director of Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation.

VOTE NOW and make Amnesty’s Panic Button a reality – remember, voting ends 31May!