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US develops ‘panic button’ app for pro-democracy activists

egypt-mubarak-resign-al-jazeeraIn an uncharacteristically cool move, the United States government has allotted millions of dollars to develop technology meant to aid pro-democracy activists around the world, Reuters reports.

A cell phone “panic button” app, for instance, will completely wipe a phone’s address book, and automatically send out an emergency signal to other activists. Under development by the US State Department, this activist app is one of a number of new technologies the US is promoting to help spread democracy in countries with oppressive governments.

“We’ve been trying to keep below the radar on this, because a lot of the people we are working with are operating in very sensitive environments,” said Michael Posner, assistant US secretary of state for human rights and labor.

At the helm of the State Department’s democracy-spreading technology initiative is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who’s pushing the expansion of Internet freedoms to help fuel citizen-led movements that use social networking services like Facebook and Twitter. The plan follows a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and Northern Africa.

The $50 million in funds allotted for the activist technologies was first budgeted by the State Department in 2008. In addition to the panic button, developers are working on technologies that allow citizens to circumvent government-imposed Internet restrictions, like China’s infamous “Great Firewall,” as well as ways for activists to keep their own data out of the hands of the government.

In 2009, the US government requested Twitter delay a planned upgrade so that the system could remain live during the surge of anti-government protests that were taking place in Iran. Since then, the US has considered social media to be central to its global strategy.

The US has so far released about a dozen circumvention technologies, and is currently training thousands of activists around the world to use the various apps.

“The world is full of … governments and other authorities who are capable of breaking into that system,” Posner said. “A lot of activists don’t know what their options are. They don’t have access to technology.”

Here in the US, the Department of Homeland Security recently announced that they will integrate the terror alert system into Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to more effectively spread the word.

Of course, critics could argue that the US-backed activist technologies could also be used against us by anti-democracy entities, like terrorist organizations.

“The fact is al Qaeda probably has their own way of gathering some of these technologies,” Posner said. “The goal here is to protect people who are, in a peaceful manner, working for human rights and working to have a more open debate.”

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