Tag Archives: tactical tech

Wasp: Sticker-War as a Tactic for Civil Resistance

Eric Russell’s science fiction novel, Wasp, is brilliant. It was published in 1957 and weaves civil resistance theory with creative tactics that remain fully relevant half-a-century later. What I want to do here is share some excerpts that describe a very neat civil resistance tactic. Please see my previous post for the context of the story along with the novel’s compelling theory on civil resistance.

One of the first tactics that Mowry employs is perhaps surprising—posting stickers with different messages. His strategy is to make the authorities think a powerful underground movement lead by Dirac Angestun Gesept (D.A.G.) is resisting the regime. This movement is entirely imaginary. The sticker read for example:

“War is wealth for the few, misery for the many. At the right time, Dirac Angestun Gesept will punish the former, bring aid and comfort to the latter.”

Mowry bet that folks who came across the he posted in very public places would be too shocked to try and remove them and would stay very clear of them. “The chances were equally good that they’d spread the news, and gossip is the same in every part of the cosmos: it gains compound interest as it goes the rounds.”

In one instance, Mowry had planted a sticker on a shop window. He then stands on the other side of the street to see what would unfold. Very quickly, a crowd forms and a scowling police officer was at the scene. He immediately summons the shopkeeper who becomes very anxious when he sees the sticker.

‘Get if off!’

‘Yes, Officer, Certainly, Officer. I shall remove it immediately.’

The manager started digging with his nails at the sticker corners, in an attempt to peel it off. He didn’t do so well, because [Earth’s] technical superiority extended even to common adhesives. After several futile efforts, the manager threw the cop an apologetic look, went inside, came out with a knife, and tried again. This time he succeeded in tearing a small triangle from each corner, leaving the message intact.

A few minutes later, James Mowry, glancing back from the far corner, saw the manager emerge with a steaming bucket and get busy swabbing the notice. He grinned to himself, knowing that hot water was just the thing to release and activate the hydrofluoric base beneath the print.

Sure enough, but the time he came back a few hours later, “the sticker had disappeared; in it’s place the same message was etched deeply and milkily in the glass. The policeman and the manager were now arguing heatedly upon the sidewalk, with half a dozen citizens now gaping alternately at them and the window.

As Mowry walked past, the cow bawled, ‘I don’t care if the window is valued at two thousand guilders. You’ve got to board it up or replace the glass.’

‘But, Officer…’

‘Do as you’re told. To exhibit subversive propaganda is a major offence.’

By the end of the night, Mowry had slapped exactly one hundred stickers on shops, offices, and vehicles of the city transport system; he also inscribed swiftly, clearly, and in large size letters D.A.G. upon twenty-four walls. The latter feat was performed with [Earth] crayon, a deceitfully chalklike substance that made full use of the porosity of brick when water was applied. In other words, the more furiously it was washed the more stubbornly it became embedded.

The following day, Mowry brought a paper and searched it for some mention of yesterday’s activities. There wasn’t a word on the subject. First he felt disappointed; then, on further reflection, he became heartened.

Opposition to the war and open defiance of the government definitely made news that justified a front-page spread. No reporter, no editor would pass it up if he could help it; therefore the papers had passed it up because they could not help it. Somebody high in authority had clamped down upon them with the heavy hand of censorship. Somebody with considerable power had been driven into making a weak countermove.

That was a start, anyway. Mowry’s first waspish buzzings had forced authority to interfere with the press. What’s more, the countermove was feeble and ineffective, serving only as a stopgap while officials beat their brains for more decisive measures.

The more persistently a government maintains silence on a given subject of discussion, the more the public talks about it and thinks about it. The longer and more stubborn the silence, the guiltier the government looks to the talkers and thinkers. In time of war, the most morale-lowering question that can be asked is, ‘What are they hiding from us now?”

Some hundreds of citizens would be asking themselves that same question tomorrow, the next day, or next week. The [messages on the stickers] would be on a multitude of lips, milling around in a like number of minds, merely because the powers that be were afraid to talk.

And if a government fears to admit even the pettiest facts of war, how much faith can the common man place in the leadership’s claim not to be afraid of anything?

I did a little research to see where we’re at with sticker technology. While stickers with hydrofluoric acid still belong to the realm of science fiction, there are stickers that give the very real semblance of being etched in glass are available.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Media, Accuracy and Balance of Power in Crises

I just read Nik Gowing’s book entitled “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: The New Tyranny of Shifting Information Power in Crises.” The term “Black Swan” refers to sudden onset crises and the title of an excellent book on the topic by Nassim Taleb. “Skyful of Lies,” were the words used by the Burmese junta to dismiss the deluge of digital evidence of the mass pro-democracy protests  that took place in 2007.

yournewmedia001_3

Nik packs in some very interesting content in this study, a lot of which is directly relevant to my dissertation research and consulting work. He describes the rise of new media as “having an asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power.”

Indeed, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband labeled this “shifting of power from state to citizen as the new ‘civilian surge.'” To be sure, “that ‘civilian surge’ of growing digital empowerment is forcing an enhanced level of accountability that […] is a ‘real change to democracy’.” As for authoritarian regimes, “the impact of new media technologies has been shown to be as potentially ‘subversive’ as for highly developed democratic states.”

However, Nik recognizes that “the implications for power and policy-makers is not well developed or appreciated.” He adds that “the implications of this new level of empowerment are profound but still, in many ways, unquantifiable.” Hence the purpose and focus of my dissertation.

Time Lines out of Sync

Nik notes that the time lines of media action and institutional reaction are increasingly out of sync. “The information pipelines facilitated by the new media can provide information and revelations within minutes. But the apparatus of government, the military or the corporate world remain conditioned to take hours.”

Take for example, the tube and train bombings in London, 2005. During the first three hours following the incidents, the official government line was that an accidental power surge had caused the catastrophe. Meanwhile, some 1,300 blog posts were written within just 80 minutes of the terrorist attack which pointed to explosive devices as the cause. “The content of the real-time reporting of 20,000 emails, 3,000 text messages, 1,000 digital images and 20 video clips was both dramatic and largely correct.”

New Media and Accuracy

I find the point about accuracy particularly interesting. According to Nik, the repeated warnings that new media and user-generated content (UGC) cannot be trusted “does not seem to apply in a major crisis.”

“Far from it. The accumulated evidence is that the asymmetric torrent of overwhelming ‘amateur’ inputs from the new generators of content produces largely accurate, if personalized, information in real time. It may be imperfect and incomplete as the crisis time line unfolds.

There is also the risk of exaggeration or downright misleading ‘reporting’. But the impact is profound. Internal BBC research discovered that audiences are understanding if errors or exaggerations creep in by way of such information doer material, as long as they are sourced and later corrected.

In addition, the concept of trust can ‘flex’ in a crisis. Trust does not diminish as long as the ongoing levels of doubt or lack of certainty are always made clear. It is about ‘doing your best in [a] world where speed and information are the keys’. But the research concluded that the BBC needed to do more work to analyze the implications of the UGC phenomenon for accuracy, speed, personalization, dialogue and trust. That challenge is the same for all traditional media organizations.

Low Tech Power

Nik describes the onslaught of new media as the low tech empowerment of the media space. During the Burma protests of 2007, “the ad hoc community of risk-taking information doers became empowered. Those undisputed and widely corroborated images swiftly challenged the authority and claims of the regime.”

burmaprotests1

During the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, both foreign journalists and aid agencies were forbidden from entering the country. But one producer and camera operator from a major news organization “managed to enter the country on tourist visas. Before being arrested and deported they evaded security checks and military intelligence to record vivid video that confirmed the terrible impact and human cost of the cyclone. Hiding in ditches they beamed it out of the country on a new tiny, portable Bgan satellite uplink carried in a hiker’s backpack.”

The Question

This is definitely an example of the “asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power,” that Nik refers to in his introduction. Question is, how much of a threat does this asymmetry pose to repressive regimes? That is one of the fundamental questions I pose in my dissertation research.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Tactics in Human Rights

I’ve been wanting to read “New Tactics in Human Rights: A Resource for Practitioners” for a while and finally found the time on the flight back from Geneva. I would definitely recommend reading New Tactics (PDF). The report combines some of my main interests: nonviolent civil resistance, tactical early warning and response, civilian protection, preparedness, technology and complex systems.

I really appreciate the group’s serious focus on tactics since most human rights organizations seem to focus more on grand strategy and advocacy—and this at the expense of tactics.

Tactical innovation is critical to the successful implementation of human rights around the globe. By expanding our thinking both tactically and strategically, the human rights community has the opportunity to be more effective.

There is often a pattern to human rights abuses—they occur in predictable places under predictable circumstances. Recognizing those patterns and disrupting them can be key to protecting human rights.

While intervention tactics are often associated with protest and resistance, some of the most dramatic successes in ending human rights abuses have resulted from negotiation and persuasion.

The report includes numerous tactics and operational examples. I summarize 5 below. I also include a brief note on self-protection and a brief conclusion.

Serbia

Tactic: Protecting arrested demonstrators by protesting outside police stations where they are being detained. This tactic was employed by the anti-Milosevic student resistance movement, Otpor, in Serbia.

Otpor put substantial time and effort into building a strong, extensive and loyal network that could be mobilized quickly. Extensive planning outlined who would call whom and exactly what each person was to do after the arrests, so that the second demonstration would follow the arrests almost instantaneously. Most contact information for the network was stored on individual members’ mobile phones, so that the police could not seize or destroy the information.

West Bank

Tactic: maintaining a physical presence at the site of potential abuse to monitor and prevent human rights violations. Machsom Watch in the West Bank uses the presence of Israeli women to protect Palestinians passing through Israeli checkpoints to ensure their rights are respected.

Monitors who witness abuses make detailed reports and publish them on their website. They invite journalists, politicians and others to join them at the checkpoints. And they wear tags that read in Arabic “No to the checkpoints!” This show of support is heartening to many Palestinians, who may not have a positive image of Israelis.

Northern Ireland

Tactic: using mobile phones to create a network of communication that can stop violence before it escalates. Like any conflict, there are people on both sides who want to prevent the escalation of violence. So the Interaction Belfast group identified leaders in each community who want to prevent violence and provided them with needed information.

During events that are likely to cause violence […] the network plans ahead to monitor key areas. Volunteers recognize that they are able to intervene most effectively in cases of ‘recreational violence’— youth seeking excitement or responding to rumors […].

When volunteers see or hear of crowds gathering [in potential areas of conflict], or hear of rumors of violence about to occur on the other side, they call their counterparts […]. Volunteers calm crowds on their own sides before the incidents become violent. Since the program began, the phone network has both prevented violence and provided communities on both sides of the interface with more accurate information when violence does occur.

Turkey

Tactic: creating a single mass expression of protest based on a simple activity that citizens can safely carry out in their own homes. This tactic was used by the “Campaign of Darkness for Light” in Turkey, which mobilized some 30 million people to flick their lights on and to protest against government corruption.

With many citiznes afraid to participate in political action, organizations needed a tactic of low personal risk that would overcome the sense of isolation that comes with fear.

Organizers initially proposed that citizens turn off their lights for one minute each night.  […]. By the second week, communities began to improvise, initiating different street actions, including banging post and pans. By the time organizers halted the action, the campaign had gone on for more than a month.

Burundi

Tactic: Using the power of the media to send targetted messages to people in a position to end abuses. In this example, journalists in Burundi used radio broadcasts to persuade key leaders to end human rights abuses occurring in hospitals. They secretely interviewed detainees and broadcast their testimonies. “The broadcasts included messages targetted to specific groups and invididuals who had the power to fix the situations.”

Self-Protection

Unfortunately, the report’s 2-page section on “Self-Care: Caring for Your Most Valuable Resource,” is not as well developed as the others. The report could have drawn more extensively from civil resistance training and digital activism. There is also much to be learned from survivor testimonies and security training manuals from field based UN-agencies operating in places like Somalia.

Conclusion

That aside, I think the New Tactics group is doing some of the most exciting research in thiearea of tactics for civilian protection for communities at risk. I highly recommend spending time on their website and browsing through the rich materials they provide.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Roundtable: Human Rights and Technology

I was recently invited by USAID to participate in a closed meeting with global activists promoting human rights. The roundtable was described to me as follows:

We are having a high-level event in Washington and we are hoping you can participate. It will be very small, with only 20-25 people, and we are seeking someone who can speak to best practices and the future of human rights blogging at an awards ceremony honoring international human rights bloggers. Either Secretary of State Rice or Administrator Fore of USAID will be in attendance.

The organizers wanted an independent academic and avid blogger with a good understanding of human rights monitoring and digital activism. I accepted the invitation since the roundtable would be an opportunity to brainstorm about the challenges and opportunities of blogging for political activism and human rights advocacy.

I was initially not going to blog about this event given some of the sensitivities involved, but as it turns out President Bush had a public meeting with the activist bloggers right before our roundtable (which is why we started almost an hour late). The White House meeting was covered by Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post. The organizers of the roundtable thus encouraged me to blog about the event (although I still have some reservations about the public nature of all this).

bloghouse

The roundtable was attended by the above activist bloggers (now residents of the US) and several representatives from USAID, the State Department, the National Security Council (NSC) and Department of Defense (DOD). Clearly, I was the only non-USG, non-dissident blogger around the table, which made sense since I was invited to provide an independent perspective to the conversation. Consider this blog post as an extension of that invitation.

After some formal introductions, we were each given about five minutes to present our perspectives on the issue of human rights and blogging. Only ten minutes were available for Q&A. Here are some of my personal, independent reactions, to the roundtable:

  • I was surprised how often Russia was referred to as the Soviet Union;
  • The introductory remarks placed too much faith in technology as the solution. There was little discussion about tactics and overall strategy;
  • The reference to the platform developed by the MIT Center for the Future of Civic Media (C4)  to enable activists to communicate securely and anonymously was not entirely accurate. First, the project is being designed for reporters, not activists, and second, the platform has not  been built yet;
  • One of the blogger activists said that US rhetoric vis-a-vis the support of human rights was less helpful than direct action, i.e., applying pressure via leverage of trade, etc;
  • Another activist said that his network does not want US material or financial support, only moral support;
  • The blogger from Iran (now living in the US), noted that the regime was spending some $60 million to try and control the proliferation of jokes sent by SMS that makes fun of the president and ruling officials;
  • When a USG official asked about the use of mobile phones for political activism, one blogger replied that the best way to help repressive regimes is to use mobile phones. I echoed his concerns by pointing out that mobile phones can be a liability because (1) they can be tracked, i.e., geo-located; (2) encrypted SMS is still not the standard; (3) address books are not encrypted or easily deletable which means that confiscated mobile phones can place hundreds in danger.

The meeting was cut short because it started late, so there was actually little time for brainstorming. Below are my (independent) concerns about the meeting and the future of human rights and political activism. They may not jive with the US Government’s take on these issues, but then again, I know that they wanted someone independent in the room to get as many different perspectives on the topic of human rights and technology. For this, the organizers have my utmost respect.

  • I don’t think that the US Government should be publicly meeting with human rights bloggers, especially the leading dissident, political activist bloggers because this makes life more difficult and more dangerous for the majority of citizen journalists and digital activists still living in repressive regimes; note that the invited bloggers all live in the US;
  • While repressive regimes need no excuse to crack down on bloggers/journalists, they often do using accusation of ties to the US government when in fact there are none. So why make it any easier for them to do so by having dissident bloggers who live in the US pose with President Bush?
  • Some argue that most activists feel their best hope for any nominal protection is to be as public as possible about their high-level meetings. But these activists already live in the US, they have already been granted asylum and therefore are not in as much danger as their colleagues still living under repressive rule. So while the bloggers who met with President Bush won’t be arrested since they live in the US, my concern is for those dissident bloggers who are risking their lives every day to influence change in their own countries;
  • Dissident bloggers tend to be political activists and/or former reporters. They are not tech savvy. In fact, when I asked a blogger sitting next to me at the meeting for their email address, they gave me a yahoo email address. This particular blogger was the only one in the group who still lives in their original country to which they were returning to the following day. I told the blogger that I would not be emaling them on that address and that they should set up a hushmail address as soon as possible;
  • Activist bloggers are in dire need of training in digital activism so that they can ensure both personal and data security; I was truly shocked about the yahoo email address;
  • Echoing what fellow bloggers have told me in the past, not everyone blogs. Bloggers are not the only voice of the people. Speaking out is only part of the problem; more of a challenge is being heard. This presents a catch-22 since a successful activist blogger who manages to be heard will usually present themselves as a target by the regime.

In closing, I don’t think the White House should be publicly supporting dissident bloggers. Instead, the USG should be promoting human rights and principles of free speech in general. If the USG wants some policy guidance on this, I would refer them to the general approach taken by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). In particular, I would consider learning from the successful US policy regarding the support of the Otpor student movement against Milosevic.

Again, I realize my views may not align with the USG officials who participated in the roundtable, but again, I was invited specifically to provide an independent perspective and to blog about it, which, to their credit, is an important element of policy making—diversity of opinions, that is. I look forward to contributing more of my thoughts in any future meetings.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Tactical Tech: Maps for Advocacy

Tactical Tech recently released it’s Maps for Advocacy guide, which is a must-read for those new to the field of crisis mapping. The guide is an excellent collection of user scenarios and mini case studies that span a diverse range of fields and technologies.

My main concern with Tactical Tech’s research on mapping for advocacy has to do with impact evaluation, or lack thereof. It’s one thing to describe a crisis mapping project, the tools involved and purpose, but it’s quite another to evaluate whether the project had any impact, whether it’s replicable and/or why it may not have been effective.

Crisis mapping is a new field with projects proliferating in multiple directions. But there are few feedback loops in place that enable us to learn from any impact these projects may have had. Anecdotal evidence is a start, but hardly sufficient to build a case for crisis mapping and advocacy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Tactical Tech’s new Mobile-in-a-Box

One of the self-organized sessions I attended at MobileActive ’08 was led by Tactical Tech. The session introduced the group’s new toolkit, Mobiles in-a-box: Tools and Tactics for Mobile Advocacy. The kit is a “collection of tools, tactics, how-to guides and case studies designed to inspire advocacy organisations and present possibilities for the use of mobile telephony in their work.”

Given my dissertation research on the tactical uses of technology by repressive regimes and resistance movements, I was very much looking forward to reading through the tool kit on my way back to Boston. Tactical Tech’s work also overlaps with my interest in strategic nonviolence and digital activism, two topics that I have given presentations and lectures on over the years.

Not surprisingly, most of the toolkit’s points on security issues are identical to some of the lessons learned in the field of conflict early warning and humanitarian response. One point of contention, however, is that according Mike Grenville, it is not sufficient to simply turn off a mobile phone to prevent the device’s location from being tracked, one must also remove the phone’s batteries. The toolkit does not make this suggestion even though the guide does cite Mike’s work. I wonder who’s right, anyone know?

Perhaps the most interesting piece of information I learned by reading the toolkit is the following:

Each image that you make [sic] on your phone automatically contains details of the location, along with details of the date, time adn type of camera or phone used; this is part of the JPG standard, teh file format most commonly used for digital images. […] Tools are available which enable this ‘hidden’ information to be viewed and, in most cases, stripped out before the image is forwarded […]. You can download a freeware tool called JPEG stripper which will remove the ‘metadata’ from your images.

The kit is without doubt an important contribution to the field and serves as a valuable resource to new activists interested in using mobile phones for advocacy. The key word here being “new”. What is really missing is a strong link with the advanced tactics and scenarios developed within the field of nonviolent action and associated lessons learned. While I have written about this before, I am repeatedly struck by the (particularly unhelpful) gulf that exists between the fields of digital activism and strategic nonviolence, which is one of the main reasons why I joined DigiActive.

It is important that the community of digital activists spend some serious time learning about the field and practice of strategic nonviolence. This means reading the literature, understanding historical and contemporary case studies, participating in nonviolent action trainings and meeting counterparts engaged in strategic nonviolence. Fear not, I’m telling my colleagues in the strategic nonviolence field the same thing about digital activists. But what we need is to cross-fertilize expertise in both fields is to organize a two-day workshop that brings both communities together to discuss tactics, tactics and tactics.

I will do my best to make this happen in 2009. However, this will only work via partnerships and collaboration. DigiActive already has links with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). Perhaps Tactical Tech and Digital Democracy might want to contribute their expertise?

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend that my colleagues in the field of digital activism and tactical technology start playing “A Force More Powerful.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Tactical Tech’s new Mobile-in-a-Box

One of the self-organized sessions I attended at MobileActive ’08 was led by Tactical Tech. The session introduced the group’s new toolkit, Mobiles in-a-box: Tools and Tactics for Mobile Advocacy. The kit is a “collection of tools, tactics, how-to guides and case studies designed to inspire advocacy organisations and present possibilities for the use of mobile telephony in their work.”

Given my dissertation research on the tactical uses of technology by repressive regimes and resistance movements, I was very much looking forward to reading through the tool kit on my way back to Boston. Tactical Tech’s work also overlaps with my interest in strategic nonviolence and digital activism, two topics that I have given presentations and lectures on over the years.

Not surprisingly, most of the toolkit’s points on security issues are identical to some of the lessons learned in the field of conflict early warning and humanitarian response. One point of contention, however, is that according Mike Grenville, it is not sufficient to simply turn off a mobile phone to prevent the device’s location from being tracked, one must also remove the phone’s batteries. The toolkit does not make this suggestion even though the guide does cite Mike’s work. I wonder who’s right, anyone know?

Perhaps the most interesting piece of information I learned by reading the toolkit is the following:

Each image that you make [sic] on your phone automatically contains details of the location, along with details of the date, time adn type of camera or phone used; this is part of the JPG standard, teh file format most commonly used for digital images. […] Tools are available which enable this ‘hidden’ information to be viewed and, in most cases, stripped out before the image is forwarded […]. You can download a freeware tool called JPEG stripper which will remove the ‘metadata’ from your images.

The kit is without doubt an important contribution to the field and serves as a valuable resource to new activists interested in using mobile phones for advocacy. The key word here being “new”. What is really missing is a strong link with the advanced tactics and scenarios developed within the field of nonviolent action and associated lessons learned. While I have written about this before, I am repeatedly struck by the (particularly unhelpful) gulf that exists between the fields of digital activism and strategic nonviolence, which is one of the main reasons why I joined DigiActive.

It is important that the community of digital activists spend some serious time learning about the field and practice of strategic nonviolence. This means reading the literature, understanding historical and contemporary case studies, participating in nonviolent action trainings and meeting counterparts engaged in strategic nonviolence. Fear not, I’m telling my colleagues in the strategic nonviolence field the same thing about digital activists. But what we need is to cross-fertilize expertise in both fields is to organize a two-day workshop that brings both communities together to discuss tactics, tactics and tactics.

I will do my best to make this happen in 2009. However, this will only work via partnerships and collaboration. DigiActive already has links with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). Perhaps Tactical Tech and Digital Democracy might want to contribute their expertise?

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend that my colleagues in the field of digital activism and tactical technology start playing “A Force More Powerful.”

Patrick Philippe Meier