Internet for All?

What would the world look like if every citizen had access to affordable internet? That’s a question attempting to be solved by, a joint effort by Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, that aims to “make internet access available to the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected, and to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected third of the world has today.” READ MORE »

A Roundup of Recent Surveillance Revelations

Source: Flickr/robjewitt

The Washington Post and others have reported extensively on the now declassified secret court opinion from 2011, which claims that the National Security Administration (NSA) has been illegally gathering tens of thousands of electronically-based communications among American citizens for several years now. An internal NSA audit conducted in May 2012 reported 2,776 incidents of unauthorized collection, storage, access to and distribution of legally protected communications from April 2011 to March 2012.  

As part of their bulk surveillance program, the NSA has put pressure on numerous companies to release information about their customers. In early August, Lavabit, an email service used by Snowden and approximately 400,000 other people, shuttered its operations after rejecting to comply with a court order to help the US government spy on its clients. Founded in 2004 and owned by Ladar Levison, Lavabit email services used asymmetric encryption to provide a significant level of privacy and security for its users -significant enough that US intelligence agencies could not crack it. Under gag order, Levison was prevented from discussing in detail the reasoning behind his company’s shutdown. On the Lavabit website Levison left a cryptic message for users regarding his decision:

“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on--the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise.”


NDITech Adventures: Mining Big Data For Public Political Sentiment

Leveraging Multiple Public Content Sources on the Internet with Crimson Hexagon Allows Us to Gauge Public Opinion
The United Nations estimates that more than 2.7 billion people will be online this year. What if there was a way to leverage the power of 2.7 billion people to tell their stories about how they feel about political topics? NDI recently received a grant from Crimson Hexagon to use their ForSight platform to delve deep into the public Internet to get answers to complex political questions.  The platform is based on mathematical algorithms developed by a team of academics at Harvard.  As we are rolling out Crimson Hexagon's platform for specific programs we run, we wanted to test it on a topic we are keenly interested in.  So, we decided we wanted to know more about what the global discussions are relating to "Technology and Democracy." 
Forsight uses a powerful supervised machine learning algorithm developed by Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. It allows users to examine a huge volume of public information on the Internet such as tweets and Weibo posts, public Facebook posts, forums, Youtube, news, blogs, comments, and reviews -- all in nearly real time. Forsight identifies content by keyword associations and users "train" the algorithm by categorizing a small set of the found content into specific categories. Once trained, the platform scans the internet and its historical database for content that is matching the user-defined criteria and categorizes it according to the user’s specific schema.  Because Forsight allows users to go back in time it is very useful for learning more about the context of events, or other political and social phenomena, prior to their occurrence. 

Detailing Censorship Under Two of the World's Most Repressive Regimes

Two Papers on Censorship Presented at FOCI'13 Caught Our Interest

As sentiment that internet freedom is increasingly being threatened worldwide is on the rise, details on the extent of how censorship is conducted at a technical level is often unavailable. At the USENIX Free and Open Communications on the Internet (FOCI) workshop today in Washington, D.C. two papers provided this information in two countries. The first by Zubair Nabi focused on increases in Internet Censorship efforts in Pakistan, and the second by Simurgh Aryan, Homa Aryan, and J. Alex Halderman examined in detail the rigorous censorship regimes present in Iran. Both papers can be found here and both illustrate a disturbing trend in state repression of information. READ MORE »

Internet Freedom in Vietnam


Internet freedom has been under threat in Vietnam for some time. The most recent action to repress free speech online is in the form of “Decree 72”, a legislation which requires Internet companies to cooperate with the Vietnamese government to enforce prohibition of: opposing the " the Socialist Republic of Vietnam," undermining "the grand unity of the people", damaging 'the prestige of organizations and the honour and dignity of individuals”, and other ambiguously worded means to express oneself online.

This decree also applies to “organization/individuals inside and outside Vietnam, directly/indirectly involved in managing/providing Internet services and information, and online games, ensuring information safety.” The decree was adopted on July 15th of this year, and will come into force on September 1st. The decree has largely been condemned by human rights organizations and internet industry operating in Vietnam. READ MORE »

DDoS Mitigation 101

Simple Techniques to Protect Your Website Against DDoS Attacks.

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are an increasingly popular method used against NGO and independent media websites to make them inaccessible during key political moments. 

How do they work?

The term DDoS in popular lexicon represents in reality a range of different types of attacks. Largely these attacks deal with the way in which computers and servers handles connection requests. The easiest way to think about DDoS attacks is to imagine your home telephone. If you receive one phone call at a time you can answer, talk, and communicate with ease. If, however, 50, 100, or 1,000 people all called you at the same time not even the best call waiting service would really suffice for your average home telephone. While computers and webservers can handle hundreds and at times even thousands of calls at the same time, they eventually reach a point were they are unable to respond adequately and give a busy signal. This busy signal prevents people from accessing content on your site, system, or online service.   READ MORE »

Animating Digital Security

Digital security can be quite challenging for activists working in conflict zones or similarly difficult environments. The SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom has produced the "Journalist Survival Guide", a series of animated videos aiming to provide journalists and citizen journalists operating in dangerous zones with the most essential recommendations on how to protect their physical and online safety. 

Our favorite videos include "How to Protect your Computer against Hacking and Malware" ... well as "How to Get a Secure Internet Connection". 


Want to see more? All videos as well as accompanying scripts are available in English and Arabic. Enjoy!

Blurring the Boundaries for the Common Good

CitizenLab Sponsored the 2013 Connaught Summer Institute at the University of Toronto

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. ~ Margaret Mead

For the last week I have been holed up with approximately 60 computer scientists, activists, and social scientists from around the world at the Connaught Summer Institute hosted by CitizenLab at the University of Toronto. The individuals gathered here are some of the top minds in monitoring internet openness and rights. For the last 5 days, each of us has either presented a paper, case studies, or posters on issues most people never think about, but should.

We have engaged one another in a cross-disciplinary give and take. The problem this institute seeks to address, as identified by the CitizenLab, is a lack of dialogue occurring between academic disciplines and with academia and activists on the ground. The entire goal, as it has become apparent, is to begin the process of blurring the boundaries between the disciplines and with activists. READ MORE »

Tech4Dem Talk, July 23! Nicco Mele on how today's tech means "The End of Big" (which also happens to be his book)

The End of Big
UPDATE:  The Livestream for the event is here (

Please join us on Tuesday, July 23  from 5-7 for talk and conversation with Nicco Mele book talk, he will discuss The End of Big: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath, published recently. In it, he explores the consequences of living in a socially-connected society, drawing upon his years of experience as an innovator in politics and technology.  He argues that "Radical connectivity—our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly, and globally —is in the process of re-shaping our biggest institutions." Please RSVP here

Where? National Democratic Institute (NDI) , 455 Masachusetts Avenue, NW, 8th floor, Washington, DC 20001

When? Tuesday, July 23; 5 - 7 pm. Refreshments provided. 

Calculators, Magicians, and Diamonds

It was more photogenic than a magician.

My eighth grade math teacher was a stale, unpleasant, rather portly old man who obviously hated teaching. He had the notion that the best way for his students to learn was to assign us scores of repetitious problems in the form of “find x” without explaining to us what we were actually doing. One night as I drearily plugged quadratic formula after quadratic formula into my graphing calculator it dawned on me that there had to be some shortcut for the work. I looked up “how to program a calculator” on Google and that evening I completely fell in love with programming. It wasn’t before long that I’d put my old TI-83 calculator behind me and was spending most of my free time building web pages and exploring the magical worlds of Java, C++, and Python.

I arrived at Stanford having every intention of majoring in computer science and eventually joining Google or a startup or fulfilling some other Silicon Valley cliche. READ MORE »

This Month's Global Online Censorship Round-Up

While news of NSA and GCHQ surveillance continues to dominate the news, there are plenty of other countries that use legal and judicial means to justify online censorship and surveillance. Internet freedom is backsliding in these countries:  READ MORE »

Spooks and Democracy Advocacy - Are We Becoming Cyberlosers?

Change the World

The recent revelations about large-scale NSA surveillance point to a pervasive problem facing democracy and human rights activists around the world. They face intense surveillance on a daily basis for working for universally accepted human rights and democratic and accountable governance. Those who thought of the internet as a space for free expression and a place where ideas are able to transit the globe unencumbered by now have realized that the reality of the Internet is not too dissimilar from that of the physical world. The great public square that is the internet is closely watched and increasingly controlled by governments and their spies.  We wonder increasingly: How can democracy and human rights activists still use this space to continue the good fight? What are the implications for democracy and human rights activists following the revelations of surveillance programs such as Prism and large-scale meta data dragnets?  Are we becoming fast the cyberlosers as the world is moving towards compromised internet governance, national internets, and pervasive surveillance? 

The bottom line is this: The online public square is depply compromised. Of course, this surely is not a great surprise.  READ MORE »

Culture and Cost, Safety and Services: Research on Mobile Phones and Afghan Women

Photo Credit: AFP

It is no secret that the number of people using mobile phones has exploded in the last ten years. In 2002, for example, there were 49 million mobile phones in Africa; today there are more than 700 million. Mobile technology has revolutionized the way people communicate and connect to social, economic and political resources. And while there is still a considerable gender gap with regard to mobile phone ownership and usage throughout the developing world, more and more women are now using mobile phones to access social services and new economic opportunities. 

Recently, USAID released a report that supports the fact that even in hard-to reach places with strict societal norms for women, mobile phones have an impact. The Afghan Women’s Capacity Building Organization conducted a survey of 2,000 women from five major provinces to determine their access to mobile technology in Afghanistan. In the report, USAID presented some key positive findings:

  • As of late 2012, 80% of Afghan women surveyed have regular or occasional access to mobile phones.

  • Access to mobile phones is growing quickly, especially among young women.

  • 44% of women who live outside of urban areas own their own phones; 39% have access to a family member’s phone.

  • Mobile phones are becoming gateways to social and commercial services, including those related to health and education.

  • A majority of women surveyed believe that “connectivity enhances Afghan women’s lives, making them feel safer, better equipped to cope with emergencies, more independent, and more able to access the family members and friends who comprise their networks.”

  • A majority of women surveyed believe that mobile phones are essential tools.

  • Fear of technology is not a barrier.


The Communications World has Changed. Have your Programs?

Use current methods of communication.

The cell phone represents the most radical transformation in communication technology for the masses since... well, who knows when. Mobiles are a BFD, and they’re everywhere. However, I’m sometimes surprised that international development professionals designing program plans don’t always recognize this new world. Based on the lived realities of citizens in their target countries, proposals for future work should always use current communication tools in their plans of reaching and working with their intended audiences.


PRISM Shedding too much Light on Your Communications? Tips for More Digi-Sec!


If your Twitter client didn't explode with the news about PRISM, here are the highlights, courtesy of the Washington Post:

An internal presentation on the Silicon Valley operation, intended for senior analysts in the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, described the new tool as the most prolific contributor to the President’s Daily Brief, which cited PRISM data in 1,477 articles last year. According to the briefing slides, obtained by The Washington Post, “NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM” as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.

The technology companies, which participate knowingly in PRISM operations, include most of the dominant global players of Silicon Valley. They are listed on a roster that bears their logos in order of entry into the program: “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” PalTalk, although much smaller, has hosted significant traffic during the Arab Spring and in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Dropbox, the cloud storage and synchronization service, is described as “coming soon.” READ MORE »

The Social Factor in Iran's Presidential Elections - Small Media's Election Monitoring Report

Photo credit: The Guardian

On June 14, Iranians will head to the polls to cast their vote for the country’s next president.  With a slew of candidates and a volatile political climate, social media is abuzz in the country. To track the trends of online conversation surrounding the elections, analysts at Small Media – a UK-based organization focused on technology research – have developed an Election Monitoring Series to explore social media for Iranian perspectives. 

The second report in the series draws on data from Twitter, Facebook, and other sources collected between May 22 and May 27, following the candidates’ announcement on May 21 and leading up to the debate on May 31.  In total, researchers found 14,464 tweets including the names of the eight Iranian presidential candidates.  The most tweeted candidate, garnering 5,897 (40%) of the mentions, was Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator who is said to be very close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei.  Following Jalili with 2,117 mentions was Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council who is closely affiliated with the news website Tabnak and focuses on economic issues.  Hassan Rowhani, a Muslim cleric with centrist views and close ties to Iran’s ruling clerics, received 1,638 mentions, followed closely by Mohammad Gharazi and Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf. READ MORE »

Taksim Square - A Social Media Battleground

Photo credit: The Telegraph, EPA

The protests that began last week in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have spread throughout Turkey, gripping the country’s politics and garnering international attention. With the excessive force used by the Turkish police against protestors, what began as a small sit-in against the government’s plan to demolish Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park has become a large-scale anti-government protest movement spanning over 60 cities.  Amid this widespread unrest, social media has become a battleground.

Since the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street demonstrated to the world that a new generation of popular movements had emerged, social media has become a focal point for organizing, supporting, and responding to popular movements.  In Turkey, the role of social media has become paramount, particularly in the absence of traditional media coverage of the movement. READ MORE »

Steganograohy on the Go: Hiding TrueCrypt Volumes in Movie Files

Embed your TrueCrypt Volumes inside of mp4 files.

Crossing borders with sensitive information can be difficult in areas where information is tightly controlled.  We have been playing around with ways to encrypt information and hide it in other content - a form of encrypted steganography.  So we tried to encrypt data with Truecrypt, an open source file encryption software, and hide it in a movie file. 

Ordinarily, anyone trying to open an encrypted Truecrypt volume found on a computer or thumb drive would receive an error message, making the encrypted files obvious.  It just screams that there is something out of the ordinary on a USB thumb drive, SD Card or computer.

We wanted to create a secure volume that fits inside of a video that actually plays -- such as a downloaded YouTube video of cats or family video in mp4 format. Within that video is a hidden TrueCrypt volume. 

Below is a step-by-step guide to hiding a TrueCrypt Volume inside of a video. Please be aware that there may be anti-encryption laws in your country, so please educate yourself on local law before proceeding. 


Tips and Tools - NOI's Organizer’s Toolbox

Photo credit: New Organizing Institute

The New Organizing Institute (NOI) is a community of organizers dedicated to supporting the organizing efforts of citizens by training organizers to build and manage effective movements. The NOI’s online Organizer’s Toolbox provides the basic tools, technologies, and strategies to help community organizers to build movements and achieve real change. According to the NOI's mission statement:

If people have the tools to engage others, the tools to build powerful campaigns, and a community of practice to help them learn and grow, they can win real change, make measurable improvements in people’s lives, and restore faith in our government and our democracy.

This is true not only for community organizing efforts in the U.S., where the NOI is focused, but also international efforts such as those supported by NDI and its partners. The toolbox hosts ten Resource Centers that support various aspects of campaign organization, including online organizing, organization and leadership, data management, voter registration and Get Out the Vote (GOTV) initiatives. From tips on public speaking to registering voters to engaging online, the toolbox covers a variety of the elements essential to community organizing.  It also contains a module designed specifically for campaign trainers, which can support programs that include a training-of-trainers component.


Photo credit: New Organizing Institute

Here at NDItech, we are always on the lookout for relevant resources that can support the efforts of NDI and its partners in the field. This online Toolbox is an excellent public resource for organizations that support movements worldwide to develop their message, engage effectively, and affect real change in their societies. By sharing past experiences, best practices, and key tactics and tools, resources such as this online toolbox can support effective community organizing and democracy-building efforts around the world.  


Instant Messaging on Smartphones: WhatsApp's Lack of Security

WhatsApp Logo

WhatsApp has become a very popular (read: FREE) alternative to traditional text messaging.  Over the past few years, many smartphone users have shifted from using BlackBerry Messenger and other instant messaging apps to WhatsApp. This is especially true for activists in much of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The growing popularity is understandable considering that this cross-platform instant messaging application for smartphones only costs $0.99 for iPhone users and nothing for other platforms.  With more than 200 million active users monthly, WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum boasted that “We’re bigger than Twitter today,” at a conference in April. According to company statistics, WhatsApp users are quite active - sending 12 billion and receiving 8 billion messages per day.   

With WhatsApp you can send free messages to friends, family, colleagues, etc. anywhere in the world.   In addition to messaging, you can create groups and exchange an unlimited number of images, video and audio media messages.  Sounds pretty great, right? READ MORE »

Mobile Phones and Violent Conflict - Is there a Connection?

Photo credit: Al Jazeera

Over the past several years, a significant body of research has examined how communication technologies are transforming social, political, and economic dynamics in societies around the world.  Much of this work has observed the positive effects of these technologies on improving civic engagement, increasing transparency, supporting free and fair elections, fostering economic development, and preventing violent conflict.  We at NDI have developed numerous programs using communication technologies to improve democracy and good governance across borders and issue areas.  

A new report, “Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage on Political Violence in Africa,” sheds light on the less beneficial aspects of communications technologies. 

The authors Jan H. Pierskalla and Florian M. Hollenbach chart new territory for this research in exploring the relationship between the expansion of cell phone coverage in Africa and higher levels of political violence. They write,

We contend that, in contrast to mass media, access to individual communication technology like cell phones can undermine the effects of government propaganda and, more importantly, play an integral part in overcoming other specific collective action and coordination problems inherent in insurgent violence.

According to the authors’ analysis, when cell phone coverage is present, the probability of conflict occurrence rises significantly.   As they argue, private communication technologies such as cell phones can play an integral role in overcoming collective action and coordination problems inherent in insurgent violence.  In Africa, the benefits of improved communication technologies are particularly substantial for insurgent groups.  The cheap availability of cell phones improves and increases communication among group members and allows for the tightening of networks.  These improvements are crucial for insurgents who are often spread out across vast geographical distances and who need an efficient means to coordinate actions and gather material support.  The authors hypothesize that enhanced communication facilitates in-group trust and information sharing, which are key to collective action. 


Someone recovered your deleted pictures? *OH SNAP!*

Snapchat Logo

Wish there wasn't evidence of those drunken college photos? Or, pics of something that could be career-ending

Enter Snapchat, an app available on iOS and Android that allows users to take a photo, send it to a friend, and is deleted after 10 seconds. (It's so easy, even Stephen Colbert can do it). Sounds pretty great, right?


Snapchat photos appear to live "beyond the grave" in the memory of smartphones (perhaps making the Ghost logo all the more appropriate). 

Decipher Forensics recently investigated if Snapchat photos actually are deleted, or if the image and any associated metadata with such photos can be recovered. Report author  used two Android devices to send and receive Snapchat photos, and found that: READ MORE »

News You can Use: Facebook Adds Trusted Contacts To Reset Passwords When Needed

Trusted Facebook Friends

Facebook recently added a new feature that will send a password reset command to a set of  pre-determined 'trusted friends." This feature is coming in handy already in closed societies and countries where activists under threat of arrest and facebook hacks.  The feature allows a Facebook user to pre-determine a set of "trusted contacts" in the security settings. Once trusted contacts are set up, if a user has trouble accessing her account (such as in case of arrest or hack), she can call on these trusted contacts and receive a security code from them to regain access to the account.  A user would need three security codes from trusted friends to regain access to the account which would, in theory, minimize any threats to those trusted friends by adversaries.  

Trusted friends are accessible in the Facebook Security Settings. We also encourage activists to check out in case you suspect that your account might be compromised. 

Crowdmap: The New New Crowdsourced Map

Exciting news from the Ushahidi team - the new version of Crowdmap, a hosted crowdsourcing platform that allows users to share thoughts, photos, and videos with the world, was released this week in a public beta. Crowdmap 2.0 is a newer, more social version of the platform originally designed to provide a simple, hosted collaborative mapping system

At NDITech, we are always looking for new ways technology can be used as a medium for purposes of communication, participation, crisis management, and civic engagement so as soon as our beta access arrived we dove in to take a look.  READ MORE »

The Georgian Elections: Popular Perceptions of Leaders and Parties


In Georgia, presidential elections are set to take place this October, generating new interest in the country’s changing political landscape.  NDItech has been engaged with our local partners in using tech to systematically monitor the election there. This will be the sixth presidential election in the country since the country’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and comes at a key time in the nation’s politics.  The elections will take place one year after President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party was defeated in the parliamentary elections by the Georgian Dream party led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became the new prime minister.  This defeat represented a significant blow to President Saakashvili, who led the country’s pro-Western Rose Revolution in 2003. A poll conducted by NDI provides some interesting insights into the nature of political opinions among Georgians. NDI conducts public opinion polling in numerous countries on political issues as part of our work. READ MORE »

Syndicate content