US government developing activist technology

  • Published
Protesters in Cairo using laptops
Image caption,
Anti-government campaigners in Egypt use laptops to help their campaign to oust Hosni Mubarak

The United States government is spending millions of dollars developing technology to help pro-democracy activists in the Middle East and China.

Washington has begun to open-up about the projects which include a "panic button" that lets protesters wipe their mobile phones if they are arrested.

State department official Michael Posner said that the US was investing money "like venture capitalists".

He also revealed that it was providing campaigners with technology training.

The US has budgeted $50m (£30m) since 2008 for its activist projects, which include developing systems to get round internet-blocking firewalls.

"We are working with a group of technology providers, giving small grants," said Mr Posner, who is assistant secretary of state for human rights and labour.

"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're trying to protect."

Mr Posner described the challenge of keeping ahead of government controls in certain countries as "a sort of cat and mouse game".

Internet shutdown

In what has become an almost standard reaction to growing political dissent, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain have all restricted access to the internet and, in some cases, temporarily shut it off.

Ironically, in some cases, US made technology has been used to help impose those restrictions, according to reports.

While private firms may take a more free market approach, the US government has been keen to leverage social networking to aid campaigners.

In 2009, it asked Twitter to postpone planned maintenance downtime so the site would remain available to Iranians who were protesting against the country's disputed election outcome.

Key-logging technology

Mr Posner also addressed the issue of government eavesdropping, citing the example of a Tunisian activist who had attended a US led training session.

His computer was found to contain key-logging software, designed to record and report everything typed on it.

Around 5,000 activists have received training, funded by the US government, said Mr Posner.

He insisted that the State Department was committed to pressing ahead with such programmes, but conceded that some of the technology could fall into the wrong hands.

He warned that putting tools for evading detection into the public domain might aid drug dealers or terrorists.

"The fact is that Al Qaeda probably has their own way of gathering some of these technologies," he said.

"The goal here is to protect people who are, in a peaceful manner, working for human rights and working to have a more open debate."