A lifeline for activists

Amnesty’s mobile alert system for activists among 10 finalists nominated for Google’s Global Impact Award. VOTE NOW – before 31 May – and make this big idea a reality.

Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation on Amnesty’s Panic Button app, shortlisted for Google’s Global Impact Award

I first came into contact with the Amnesty Panic Button project in November last year. I’d joined a group of human rights activists from around the world at an Amnesty event in Nairobi, Kenya, focused on the impact of technology for human rights. I had never seen anything like it before in my work. I immediately saw what a powerful tool it could be.

Panic Button is an application that enables activists at risk to broadcast their location periodically to a pre-determined list of contacts. With a push of a button, an sms message goes to the network they’ve selected. For their security, this never shows in the phone outbox and the app runs secretly in the background of the phone. Now Panic Button has been picked as one of 10 finalist projects for Google’s Global Impact Challenge, a one-off opportunity to win £500,000 to turn a big idea into reality.

An invaluable system
The system would be invaluable for activists like me. I am the founder of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan. We work to support all civil society actors in Pakistan to be safe and savvy users of technology when they exercise and defend their right to free expression.

For those of us whose work focuses on the effective and safe use of information and communication technologies for human rights work, we know only too well that technology can be a double-edged sword. As an activist I have faced violence myself and know what it is to live in fear. Last year, when 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai was shot by a Taliban gunman on a school bus for having the courage to stand up for girls education, I, too, became a target for speaking out and death threats against me streamed in online.

We are not the only ones. Historic elections were held in Pakistan for the first time at the beginning of May, but they were marred by violence.  The night before the elections, senior politician Zohra Shahid Hussain was gunned down. Her mobile was snatched in the attack. Why would the killers want her mobile phone? Is it true that our smartphones make us vulnerable rather than empowered and connected to millions of others?

There are thousands more in Pakistan who live under the daily threat of violence: an activist monitoring election data;  a polling agent assigned to work in sensitive locations; an activist in Balochistan, fighting for justice on behalf of those who have been abducted by state security forces. Balochistan is the biggest province of Pakistan and also the least secure and least talked about of all the areas.

Getting that first alert out
Panic Button would allow hundreds of thousands of activists at risk of being harassed, detained and abducted by their own governments to get that important first alert out – of their location. It is not the end product though. Since security applications are always exploited with the passage of time, Amnesty will keep working to strengthen and make it more secure.

As an ongoing advisor to the Panic Button project, I am excited to think about what will become possible if it were to win a Google Global Impact Award so that activist networks around the world could be equipped to use the system safely as part of their security protocols.

Nighat Dad is Executive Director of Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation.

VOTE NOW and make Amnesty’s Panic Button a reality – remember, voting ends 31May!

Posted in Human Rights Defenders and Activists, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

  1. Rattan Kaur says:

    If we dont protect eachother and stand up for justice, who will?

  2. Pat Williams says:

    This is such a great plan.

  3. Reuben Yancey says:

    Inspiring and brilliant! We are all in this together!

  4. Buddha says:

    I would like to thank Ms. Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan for this blog on Amnesty’s Panic Button app (link to: http://livewire.amnesty.org/2013/04/15/how-to-turn-a-mobile-phone-into-an-alert-system-for-activists/) that has been shortlisted for Google’s Global Impact Award.

    As a member of Amnesty International, I always try to support different initiatives taken by Amnesty International to protect and promote human rights worldwide. So I have already voted for Amnesty’s Panic Button app. This Panic Button is a great effort to protect human rights activists on the ground. I believe activists on the ground need more protection than people working in an office with all types of opportunities.

    I have gone through this blog and the other blog ‘How to turn a mobile phone into an alert system for activists’ (link to: http://livewire.amnesty.org/2013/04/15/how-to-turn-a-mobile-phone-into-an-alert-system-for-activists/) and saw your promo as well.

    Now, I have couple of questions:
    1. Will it be available for all types of mobile phones? Or only for smart phones?
    2. How would you identify the activist who is at risk on the ground?

    I think this ‘big idea’ or potentially ‘powerful tool’ is not really new in the market! Please check Circleof6 (http://www.circleof6app.com/) and FIGHTBACK (http://www.fightbackmobile.com) apps. These apps are doing the similar things that you want to see after successful development of ‘Panic Button’ app. I imagine you have a working group / project development group for this ‘Panic Button’ project. Being a member of Amnesty International, I would like to recommend Amnesty International and to Ms. Nighat Dad to communicate with those people who developed Circleof6 (http://www.circleof6app.com/) and FIGHTBACK (http://www.fightbackmobile.com) apps.
    Wish you a very good luck.

  5. Tanya says:

    Thanks so much for your comment @Buddha. We appreciate your support and taking the time to vote! You raise a couple of important questions.

    In short:
    1. At the moment the app has been developed on Android. We chose the Android platform to begin with as it allowed us to develop increased functionality that would be useful to activists while being relatively cheap & widely available in many markets. However, our ambition is to scale to other operating systems and also to create a version that replicates some of the alert functionality on a more basic feature phone. It is obviously very important that we can create versions that support people in a wide number of contexts and while smartphones are increasing, many, many activists still use basic phones.

    2. At the moment we are building partnerships with Human Rights Defenders networks in different regions. We intend to work closely within established regional networks which work to support individuals at risk and understand contexts & needs (which vary widely when it comes to use-cases, access to tech and security environments). Obviously this is something that Amnesty has many years of experience with and we are collaborating with many of our partners to develop regional projects for the pilot phase. Longer term the app will be available to install from an Amnesty hosted website.

    3. Thank you for sharing those links! We are continuing to explore opportunities for collaboration and partnership wherever possible and reduce duplication of tools in the market. While the technology itself may not be ‘revolutionary’ I believe that our open and participatory approach is – involving human rights defenders in the design process and learning as much as possible from past failures in technology initiatives. Amnesty is working within a wide network of advisors at the intersection of technology, activism and human rights.

    Ultimately our ambition for this alert system begins rather than ends with the Panic Button app. Our big idea is about fostering the support for networks, training resources and ongoing development to create market appropriate versions of the tool and to scale the infrastructure that supports these at the back-end. Personally my belief is that the technology is only one small part of a project that equips activist networks with the tools and training to augment & improve current security protocols and behaviours. From our work with human rights defenders we continually hear that this is missing and greatly needed. We will continue to work with others in this process as it is by no means an ‘Amnesty-only’ initiative.

    I hope this answers some of your questions (sorry for the length but they are not simple questions!) If you want to discuss more or have other ideas to share please feel free to leave a comment here or send us an email! : panic.button@amnesty.org

  6. Federico Santiago says:

    …we are all together in this plan.

    • Shiromi Pinto says:

      Thanks Federico – and everyone else who stopped by – for voting and sharing your thoughts.

  7. thonvyda says:


    ” To protect human rights activist is to protect human rights”-nhn

    News reporter Penelope Faulkner Y Lan has been unveiling the Communist Party of Vietnam’s dark policy toward human right violations. As a result, she is the target of numerous attacks including slandering aiming to sabotage her works. Those attacks come from anti-human rights individuals and communist sympathizers. We urge you to learn more about her and support her works as an advocate for democracy and human rights by signing the petition below:

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    Thank you for your support!

  8. Hate crimes in civil societies in India is my main concern. It is alarming that perpetuators are increasingly resorting to covert tactics in a scattered as well as organised manner. I have already floated a survey and petition to this effect. We are pressing for a law against hate crime.

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