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Humans · Technology

Innovative Egyptian app saving activists from forced disappearances

December 12th, 2017
in: Humans, Technology
by: Bob Koigi
located in: Egypt
tags: activism, amnesty international, Egypt, Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), forced disappearance, human-rights, Nairobi, torture

It is a tough life being a journalist, activist, outspoken student or a citizen who holds a dissenting voice. Torture, forced disappearance and murder have been employed by authorities keen on clamping down on the freedom of expression.

Statistics indicate that in the first eight months of 2015, one of the worst years for activists, 1,250 people disappeared according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF). Amnesty International has depicted the severity of the situation in a report that indicates that even 14 year old children have been reported to have disappeared at the hands of authorities without a trace.

The majority of them are picked from the streets by police and detained where no one can access them. This has applied to even foreigners including Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, whose body was discovered in Cairo last year having been badly tortured. Regeni’s murder, (after it was discovered that he was researching on the trade unions in the country), while attracting international furore, exposed the degree of state-sponsored human rights violations.

Amnesty International, in its report “Officially you do not exist,” details cases running into hundreds of forced disappearance with the Egyptian authorities blamed for the torture of many more.

Now tired of living in fear, the Egyptians have decided to do something about it, and have come up with a clandestine mobile application that sends alerts on locations within minutes of one’s capture.  

Known as I Protect, the app runs on Android, and is the latest demonstration of how civil society groups and activists have embraced technology to stay ahead of oppressive regimes while protecting their own. Its success, having been downloaded over 1,000 times, is deemed to inspire similar initiatives across the continent and even globally, at a time when alarm has been sounded on the growing cases of muzzling free speech and alternative voices.

Once a user downloads the app, they can create a profile and add numbers of three close persons who can be contacted in case of an arrest. The user then proceeds to allocate a single digit number which acts as an alarm button and can be easily activated in case of arrest.

The most striking feature about the app is that after being downloaded it disguises itself as a calculator to ensure that it is not detected. If a user senses they are about to be arrested they press the alarm button which automatically triggers a message to the three recipients and an email to Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, the institution that launched the app. The phone’s GPS also assists in transmitting the location of the arrest after every five minutes.

The idea is to monitor the location of those arrested within 24 hours of an arrest, and allow the rights group make interventions to stop a transfer to unknown locations which usually makes it hard to track those detained. Its clandestine nature means that it will always appear as a calculator and it is only the user who has the powers to convert it back as an app through keying in a combination that they themselves set up in the first place.

It draws its inspiration from a mobile distress signal dubbed Panic Button that was created by Amnesty International targeting human rights activists operating in the world’s most repressive nations and which improves their access to assistance in the event of attacks.

“Such innovative ways of shielding and protecting activists who are at the mercy of the governments of the day are timely, and vital in the 21st century activism where oppressive regimes are devising new ways of targeting their critics. The idea is to get ahead of them and technology as is in many other areas, has been the magic bullet,” said Prudence Mwanzinzi, a human rights activist based in Nairobi.

Human rights bodies are also betting on the app to assist in building a detailed database that would capture details of victims and help in building cases to hold people to account for crimes meted on citizens.

“It is one of the many innovative platforms we have seen mushrooming to address the issue of forced disappearances. We have seen similar applications in India to protect women. But these are short lived interventions. What we need to do is pile pressure on the authorities to admit that these problems are there, so that we can then work into how they are addressed and how to hold those responsible to account,” Prudence added.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Current Map: Our coverage
Embed from Getty Images
Amnesty International has depicted the severity of the situation in a report that indicates that even 14 year old children have been reported to have disappeared at the hands of authorities without a trace.
Embed from Getty Images
Now tired of living in fear, the Egyptians have decided to do something about it, and have come up with a clandestine mobile application that sends alerts on locations within minutes of one’s capture.
Embed from Getty Images
Its success, having been downloaded over 1,000 times, is deemed to inspire similar initiatives across the continent and even globally, at a time when alarm has been sounded on the growing cases of muzzling free speech and alternative voices.

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