Twitter helped the Arab Spring spread, but now it’s also an obvious means of government surveillance. DIY drones may give activists an idea of local police activity, but now militarized police from India to North Dakota are arming their own drones with pepper spray and tasers. Movement leaders now know that their online communications with foreign journalists can be used against them.
For every technological advance that enables social movements to wield more power, there is an opposite–and often unequal–reaction. Repressive governments learn quickly, using the same technology to spy on activists, subvert their communications, and crack down on gatherings.
The dynamic requires that activists now beef up on tools for secure on- and offline communication, such as the mesh networking app Firechat–the most popular iOS app in Taiwan at the height of student protests there in 2013. With a new project called Backslash, two designers have created set of six sleek devices to arm the protester of the future with a toolkit for working against a tech-savvy state.
“The future of technology in protests looks dark,” write the designers, Pedro G. C. Oliveira and Xuedi Chen, on their site. “How can the global community retain the right to free speech and public assembly in a safe and effective manner? How can we level the technological playing field for activists and the general population?”
The working prototypes of the designs, which will be presented on September 19 at the Open Hardware Summit, have a dystopian feel but are grounded in research. The pair interviewed and studied activists in recent movements around the world, such as Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, the 2013 protests in Brazil, and Iran’s Green Movement in 2009. Oliveira, who completed the project as part of a thesis for NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, is a Brazil native who watched the police crackdown on friends firsthand.
One invention is a smart bandana printed with a computer-generated pattern that, like a QR code, could convey hidden messages that would be decoded by an app. But the pattern doesn’t have to contain an actual message. It could also contain an extra layer of authentication for unlocking a note sent by other means.
Another device is a wearable that would work independently from cellphone networks to warn people away from police “bottlenecks,” where police try to force protesters into a narrow place where they’re easier to contain. When a person presses a panic button, other devices within a 10 block radius would vibrate or blink. “For places without smartphones, this one was more about how to restrict technology to the bare minimum and make it low cost,” says Oliveira.
Other pieces of the kit include a drive for sending anonymous images and data, an emergency router for deploying a local network during an Internet blackout, a stencil graffiti tag that marks the urban environment with secret messages, and a short-range jammer that blocks outside communications to a phone while still allowing camera access.
The designers have already tested their devices in New York City under different conditions, including around tall buildings and in tear gas. But their creations aren’t meant to be “one-size-fits-all” solutions, says Oliveira. Some will work better in places like Hong Kong, where the average protester had three Internet-connected devices. Other are better suited to countries where smartphone penetration is low.
The designs, says Chen, are open-source starting points intended to be adapted locally in different combinations. The pair has no plans to manufacture them, but they want to hold workshops to engage maker communities, fab labs, and activists around the world in a conversation about technology and protest.
“We studied examples in different parts of the world. China is going to be different than Syria which is going to be different than South America,” she says. “At the core of the project is an idea about cultivating community-driven design.”