The United States government is developing a “panic button” system to help freedom campaigners in foreign countries ranging from China to numerous places in the Middle East, by allowing them to receive alerts and wipe out their entire address books should security forces take their cell phone.
“We’ve been trying to keep below the radar on this, because a lot of the people we are working with are operating in very sensitive environments,” notes the assistant US secretary for human rights and labor, Michael Posner. Cell phones, together with the internet via such sites as Facebook and Twitter, have played a crucial role in propelling pro-democracy movements in countries such as Egypt and China, and the US has now devoted around fifty million dollars to helping activists in such nations get around firewalls imposed by their repressive governments and protect their own data from security forces. “We’re operating like venture capitalists, giving small grants,” Posner admits. “We are looking for the most innovative people who are going to tailor their technology and their expertise to the particular community of people we are trying to protect…. We’re now going full speed ahead in trying to get the money out the door… The world is full of governments and other authorities who are capable of breaking into that system. A lot of activists don’t know what their options are. They don’t have access to technology.”
The US has begun to view the Internet as a key tool in the spread of democracy, even launching its own Twitter feeds in Arabic, Farsi and Hindi.