For the past several months I’ve been working on a project for moving data around when there’s no internet. I talked a bit about this at the Power of Information conference earlier this year in London, but I thought I’d share more here.
Abayima applies cold war tactics to mobile data storage and distribution.
Abayima targets anyone living in oppressive, restrictive, societies around the globe. It was inspired by the information networks during the most recent Uganda elections and the Arab Spring — both situations where electronic communication networks were compromised (or complete shutdown) by authorities.
As a strategy it will work in any country where there are low-end mobile phones, the most accessible communication technology on the planet. As a technology, it works for groups who wish to disseminate messages discretely in a way that mimics one of the oldest forms of communication, pen and paper.
Two recent events inspired the development of Abayima. In 2011 the internet in Egypt was shut off, preventing activists and dissidents from communicating with each other or the outside world. A few months later, in Uganda, during the reelection campaign for President Yoweri Museveni, the mobile carriers were compromised and monitored for voices of dissent. This allowed for the filtering of text messages that were deemed unacceptable, while the same networks were used to spread electronic propaganda in the form of SMS and MMS messages to the public.
As a Strategy
This conversation shaping using communication technologies for propaganda echoes the intimidation and propaganda techniques used by the German and Soviet governments during World War II and by many other oppressive governments since. Anyone with two phones and a sim can do this right now but to do it more efficiently we’ll be developing an application to support this type of message storage.
Abayima is largely a strategy for moving messages sans telecom infrastructure. It’s also a toolkit which assumes electronic communication via internet or mobile carrier has been compromised completely and allows activists and journalists to use the SIM cards themselves to publish or distribute information freely.
As a Product
Rather than rely upon high-tech infrastructure, Abayima relies upon centuries old information networks inspired by the Jewish resistance, the underground slave escape routes in the United States, Navajo code talkers, the war scouts of Sparta etc. There is a long lineage of using no or low technical means of encryption to protect sensitive information.
As a technology Abayima is a way of storing information on SIM chips which can then be placed in a mobile phone on the other end to be read.
- A journalist writes several sensitive details and stores them to a SIM that isn’t used for texting, but to share the message with only a designated party whom they would hand deliver it to. Because the SIM isn’t used for calls, the only way to intercept the message is physically.
- A group of activists could send messages between two locations using a ‘runner’. When the runner arrives he hands off the SIM which will contain messages for the recipient.
- SIM cards are as ubiquitous as mobile phones and its generally understood how to use them across most populations. Thus, the SIM card itself could be a publishing/distribution mechanism for content of all types.
- For advanced users with access to higher-end technology the messages could be written using a computer and our software, encrypted with software, and stored on the SIM. The receiver would need technology with a key to decrypt the message. This adds a layer of protection against interception as it becomes necessary to crack the encryption algorithm first.
Why not use thumb drives?
Because thumb drives require two computers on either side, a level of infrastructure that exceeds the means of the poorest. The number of people with low end mobile phones, globally, far exceeds the number with access to computers.
Can’t these messages be intercepted?
Yes. Electronic communication like SMS can be ‘sniffed’ while passing through the air. Paper with notes can be stolen. People can be tortured to extract information. There will always be a way to intercept communication.
That said, SIM cards are small, easy to destroy or swallow, and can’t be read without some sort of assistive device. Abayima (the product) can be used to encrypt whatever message is contained, adding another layer of protection.
Aren’t there better ways to distribute information?
Yes. This publishing method is more akin to pen and paper communication. By design, it is inefficient. But it’s highly practical if you have limited resources as it leverages local infrastructure. This is intended to be carried out in ‘last ditch’ scenarios where the more efficient methods of delivery like email, instant messaging, text messaging, VOIP or others have either been compromised by hackers, are being monitored by authorities, or completely disabled. It’s a work around when the alternative is no long-distance communication at all.
What is a sneakernet?
It refers to using your feet (sneakers) to move information around, particularly data storage devices. The implication is that though there are clearly other ways to access that information, the sneakernet is the fallback.
Visit the project at http://abayima.com