Weaponising the lifeline

A couple of years back, I attended a Techfugees meetup here in London. It’s a travelling show, popping up in different cities with the aim of corralling h engineers, designers, coders, and technologists of various flavours together to solutioneer the heck out of problems faced by migrant populations with, you know, technology. It was a pretty inspiring event full of great ideas, and as you’d expect, the focus in Europe was in offering help to the rush of Syrians fleeing the conflict there. A lot of these were aimed around mobile phones, something everyone has, and which is the most essential thing many migrants want to keep on hand. With it, you have maps, news, contact with your family and a way of finding out how to navigate new countries with various languages, at least some of which you won’t know.

What a difference a couple of years can make. Some of the more innovative solutions had come from Vodafone Foundation. One was the Digital School in a Box, a sort of online classroom that could be set up in minutes in any refugee camp and ran off of wifi and 3G/4G mobile signals. The other was the Instant Charge box, another durable pop-up station that allowed users to refuel their mobiles and even get online in one place.

These creations were/are entirely useful, necessary, and no doubt helped a lot of people survive. The mobile is one of the most valuable possessions someone can have in this situation. Your contacts are there. Maps, social networks with the news from back home. Information on where to find the best travel routes, know which borders are closing, where the next refugee camp is, and so on, it’s all there. Keeping these mobile batteries full also helps governments keep track of where large moving populations are, and decide when to arrest them and send them back. And now, with soft leaders of fragile governments trying to placate far-right anti-immigrant factions in their countries, These lifelines are also weapons of skittish, and possibly cynically xenophobic leaning states. The thing people have been encouraged to rely on, often by very well meaning people, is also part of a trap.

“Last year, more than 7,000 people were deported from Germany according to the Dublin regulation. If Omar’s phone were searched, he could have become one of them, as his location history would have revealed his route through Europe, including his arrival in Greece.

But before his asylum interview, he met Lena – also not her real name. A refugee advocate and businesswoman, Lena had read about Germany’s new surveillance laws. She encouraged Omar to throw his phone away and tell immigration officials it had been stolen in the refugee camp where he was staying. “This camp was well-known for crime,” says Lena, “so the story seemed believable.” His application is still pending.”

Wired article

Reducing a mobile’s footprint or its owner’s history isn’t easy. It’s not just avoiding apps, or using a “dumb phone.” It’s about the mobile leaving its path behind as it pings every tower, leaving records behind about what it’s done and where it’s gone. The answer would be more in keeping the devices off as much as possible and to regularly change a mobile and SIM as often as possible, avoid apps running geolocation or talking about your location in large online groups. None of that makes life easier for someone already saddled with a thousand problems.

While I like a good tech solution, if organisations are going to work in solidarity with migrant populations across Europe, then maybe the solution isn’t always ways that keep people sending and receiving more data on their mobiles, but less, and focus on apps that can operate independently of a mobile number or network signal. Or, work on techniques that at least add a lot of fuzziness to the traffic. What if a lot of mobiles were moving around, looking like patterns migrants might have? How many false positives would it take to make the operation to expensive to continue?

Digital Security types have been screaming to the world and mostly to no one in particular about the potential weaponisation of mobile phone data. There are, of course, more than enough tales to make the case. Journalists targeted because they didn’t turn geotracking off on their Twitter feeds and such. But as a mass-scale weapon. There is a proof-of-concept population for this, and its migrants trying to navigate Europe.

Crossing a border with your privacy intact can be tough enough. We’re now seeing the weaponising of people’s data while they’re between them.

Related…

Data at the border
Data at the U.S. border
Escape plan
Do you really need a burner phone?