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May 18 2011


SaferMobile Helps Protect Your Cell Phone Data from Threats

Activists, rights defenders and journalists use mobile devices and communications for reporting, organizing, mobilizing and documenting. Mobile gadgets provide countless benefits -- relatively low cost, increased efficiencies, vast reach -- but they also present specific risks.


Mobile communication is inherently insecure and exposes you to risks that aren't easy to detect or overcome. SaferMobile is a project that aims to help people, including journalists and citizen reporters, assess and better protect themselves from mobile threats. The project launched with content and announced tools (currently in beta) in April, and development began in January. SaferMobile is a project of MobileActive.org.

Understand the risks

The first step toward better protection is to understand the vulnerabilities. While some risks may not apply to your work, the SaferMobile motto is: The more you know, the more you can make smart choices regarding your mobile communications.

Your mobile service is operated by your wireless network operator.  But did you know that as it manages your communication, it's also able to record certain types of messages you send, as well as information about your communication activities and your device?

Monitoring or eavesdropping can also occur with text messages, calls and mobile Internet use. As a reporter, this is something to keep in mind if you need to protect anonymous sources or sensitive content. The contents of your text messages are visible in plain text and stored in network records. Text messages (and emails if sent unencrypted) with certain keywords can be blocked and the sender singled out.

In addition, mobile phones can easily be lost, stolen or taken from you. If your phone's address book stores your contacts, anyone with access to the device can see them. With many phones, an attacker can gain unauthorized access remotely if he or she installs an application on the device. To do this, an attacker might trick you into downloading a file from the Internet or opening an infected MMS, or simply take advantage of having temporary physical access to the device.

The SaferMobile project assesses many other risks you may or may not be aware of. You can read more about them here.

Better Protect Yourself

The SaferMobile project also presents general tips on how to better protect yourself. For example:

  • As much as possible, avoid linking your identity to your phone number. Buy prepaid SIM cards; if at all possible avoid registering the SIM in your name. And buy a cheap, low-tech phone that you don't mind throwing out if necessary. More suggestions are in this guide.
  • Take your battery out of your phone during and when traveling to and from group meetings to avoid cell phone triangulation and location tracking.
  • Delete messages, photos/videos, and call records to deter an unsophisticated attacker, but remember that deleted data can sometimes be recovered from the phone. Don't use the phone contact list if you can keep numbers in a safe place without it. Don't store numbers and names together.

Check Back and Add your Comments

Check back often on the SaferMobile project. A unique SaferMobile site will be up this summer, and for now, updates and new content are posted on MobileActive.org and the SaferMobile wiki. We have more content coming down the line, including:

  • online and offline educational and tactical resources (risk evaluation tools, case studies, how-to guides, security tool reviews);
  • trainings and curricula;
  • and specific mobile security software focused on the needs of rights defenders, activists and journalists.

SaferMobile welcomes your comments to keep us on track and stay relevant to your needs. We're particularly interested in suggestions for additional content topics and tools. SaferMobile Tweets at @safermobile. You can also contact us via email at info@safermobile.org, or leave a comment below.

November 19 2010


How To Capture High Quality Video on Your Mobile Phone

Prabhas Pokharel contributed research and writing to this article

Many of today's mobile phones can capture video footage. This has enabled both trained journalists and citizen reporters to more easily capture footage and images that would have otherwise rarely been seen. The Polk Journalism Award in 2009, for example, was awarded to a video from Iran that was captured on a mobile phone. Today, more and more journalists are using mobile phones to record video and quickly transfer content to their newsrooms via mobile data connections. 

The good news for all of us is that you don't need a high-quality video camera to do high-quality reporting, whether you're in the U.S. or elsewhere. Many journalists and citizen reporters today use smartphones to capture video footage. Examples abound. A group of journalism students in Canada use an iPhone with some additional hardware and software to do all their video editing on the phone. Voices of Africa uses a Nokia N-series smartphone. In his book Mobile Journalism in the Asian Region, Stephen Quinn uses both iPhones and Nokia smartphones. This post will provide some tips and tools to help you record quality video and audio from your mobile phone.

Make Sure Your Phone is Capable

Phone hardware is constantly improving and getting cheaper. If you have an older phone, you may consider video enhancement software, which can offer a cheaper way to get better quality video content. For high quality video recording on a mobile, the best phones available today feature 640 × 480 pixels at 30 "frames per second":http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frame_rate, but 320 × 240 pixels at 15 frames per second produces acceptable web-quality video.
Lower resolutions will look grainy and pixelated without software enhancement, and video below 15 frames per second will look choppy. On the high quality end, these are some good mobile phones with excellent video cameras:

  • PC Magazine featured five video-phone models in varying price ranges. The article includes lengthy reviews and a matrix comparison of the phones.
  • For high end phones, take a look at these articles: CNet's top five video phones of 2009, Wirefly's top 10 2009 video phones, MSNBC's video phone review with five recommendations, and these links for the iPhone 3GS and the Motorola Droid.
  • The GSMArena.com database features 1800 phones with video capabilities, 70 of which are listed on this page. The site allows you to search for cameras based on various criteria and links directly to carriers around the world who are selling these phones.
  • The Nokia N series phones are generally highly recommended for video recording. The N82, N93, and N95 are mentioned often by independent reviewers.

Go Shoot (Good) Video

When it comes to shooting video, the major difference between mobiles and mainstream camcorders is that mobile phones have simpler (and smaller) cameras. It is important to understand what makes for good quality video given these limitations. Some suggested tools and tips are listed below.

  • This video from Howcast.com discusses how to capture breaking news. The BBC has a similar video guide.
  • The ABCs of Good Audio from the Mobile Journalism Collective offers tips on getting audio right.
  • Recording good audio often requires an external microphone, but some mobiles may not support standard microphones. Here are two videos that deal with this issue: 1, 2.
  • The Knight Digital Media Center's tutorials, Witness.org's manual for recording video, and Camcorder.info's quick guide are also good resources.
  • The YouTube Reporter's Center channel has tips for video reporters using online video tools like YouTube.

Top Five Tips for Video Recording

Using the above guides, we have summarized the top five tips for video recording on mobile phones.

  1. Camera stability is key. If you have a tripod, use it. If not, work on developing a steady grip and a stable sitting or kneeling position (here are some tips). Avoid jerky movements, and pan as slowly as possible. External hardware may help with this.
  2. Use an external microphone if at all possible. Mobile phone microphones are built for call-quality audio, which is not ideal --  especially when you are shooting from a distance. More tips on recording audio on mobiles are available here.
  3. Think carefully about lighting. It is best to film outside in sunlight, but make sure to keep the sun behind the back of the person filming. If you are filming inside, be sure to use many lights to fill the subject from all sides. Low resolution videos look the best when there is plentiful light.
  4. If you need to pan, pan slowly to avoid jerkiness in the video. Most mobile phone video cameras do not have a digital zoom, but if yours does, it's best not to use it. Try walking closer to the subject being filmed.
  5. Finally, if you are not going to upload the video directly from your handset, use the highest resolution and quality settings offered. You can compress the video on your computer later. If you are uploading video directly from your handset, you may want lower quality video so you get a smaller file size.
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March 25 2010


News Service Uses Mobile Voice Messages to Inform Rural India

One call can bring news to hundreds in rural villages in India. Gaon Ki Awaaz, which means "Village Voice" in the Avhadi language, sends out twice-daily news calls to subscribers directly over their mobile phones. Launched in December 2009, the project recently expanded to 250 subscribers spread over 20 villages.

What Does Gaon Ki Awaaz Do?

Sunil Saxena, dean of the International Media Institute of India that launched the project, said that Gaon Ki Awaaz was developed in order to meet the needs of rural populations. Gaon Ki Awaaz has two reporters, Divyakar Pratap Singh and Priya Gupta, who produce news reports by recording 30-to 60-second voice notes on their phones. Those short news bulletins are sent as multi-media messaging (MMS) to local editor Satyenda Pratap for review and are then sent on to Saxena for final review. The reporters are from the village of Rampur-Mathura (where the pilot is being run) so they can transmit reports in the local dialect, Avhadi.

Subject matter for the broadcasts can include alerts such as when health camps are coming to a nearby area, farm tips, events happening in the village such as religious and/or community-oriented celebrations, or local-centric government announcements. Saxena explains the value of mobile phones for communicating information:

In most of the Indian villages, the literacy levels are low. So newspaper do not work as the medium to disseminate information. And because the electricity is erratic, the television is also not a very good medium - we're talking about the villages, not the cities - so the only way one could overcome these two hurdles was to look at mobile phones. And if you look at the way the mobile phone's popularity has grown in India, it's absolutely remarkable. There are 543 million subscribers, and even in villages a lot of villagers now own mobile phones. It's become a part of their everyday life.

Saxena explained the thinking behind using voice calls: "We wanted to move away from the SMS alerts [that many large media companies in India use], because many villagers can't read them, so the purpose is completely defeated. It had to be a voice call, and it could not be MMS because some of the villagers are very poor - they're using very simple phones and don't all have MMS facilities."

Another reason mobile and particularly, mobile voice works for this project is its ease of use; recording voice notes and sending them as an MMS is easy for the local reporters, and subscribers need only to answer their phones in order to hear the pre-recorded messages. Adds Saxena, "The advantages we saw with mobile was 1. the villager could hear a news bulletin in the language or dialect that he or she speaks; and 2., the news relates to events happening around the village life. And this was not possible with any other device."

The ease of receiving and sharing Gaon Ki Awaaz's reports motivated the group to expand from an original closed group of 20 subscribers to 250 users. Saxena explains that the original 20 subscribers would often organize other villagers in order to broadcast the news alerts via speakerphone. According to Saxena, mobile phones are changing how news can be shared. He says, "They're enabling a large number of people who did not have access to information or could not contribute to information flow."

How Does It Work?

The twice-daily news reports (broadcast at noon and 5 p.m.) start with the village reporters recording their bulletins into the phones' voice recorders as .amr files. Those files are sent to the local editor, then on to Saxena. Saxena transfers the files to his laptop and converts them to .wav files. Because the .wav files are data-heavy, the files are compressed as .zip files and then sent on to Netxcell, a company in Hyderabad, for broadcast. Netxcell takes the files and sends them out as a robo-call to the numbers stored in a database (which the villagers submit).

Although the process has multiple steps, it doesn't take much time as everything is sent electronically and is automated.

The cost of the program is low; it's free for the villagers and is currently funded by Saxena's IMII colleague Dave Bloss. Bloss is a Knight International Fellow, and is funding the project through his Knight grant. Saxena estimates that the total cost of the four-month project is roughly $1000 USD. The only costs have been the purchase of three MMS-equipped phones (for the two reporters and local editor), which cost about $100 US each, and the monthly broadcast fees. Because the transmission costs of the short robo-calls are fairly cheap (Saxena estimates that the expansion of the subscriber to 250 raised the monthly fee to roughly $300 USD; before that is was under $100 USD), the project is able to operate with a small budget.

Despite the small budget, Gaon Ki Awaaz is now trying to become sustainable by bringing in independent revenue. Gaon Ki Awaaz recently got its first advertisers - in early March 2010 one of the village merchants, who was part of the original group of 20 users, bought an ad that was played before the news. Saxena says that they are looking to eventually bring in two types of adverts from local merchants and from national agricultural companies. The plan is to start with hyper-local advertising in order to gauge the response, and then start looking to agri-companies to have them sponsor some bulletins.

Plans for expansion include making the system more interactive for the villagers and increasing the number of subscribers. Subcribers currently only receive news voice calls but Saxena hopes to eventually enable villagers to submit their own news updates to a toll-free number. That information will be vetted by the reporters or local editor, and then added in to the reports. Says Saxena, "The aim is to enable subscribers to generate information about themselves in their own language, and to be able to hear information that's relevant to them."

He adds, "There is no better tool for information to come in, and for information to go out. If something happened in a remote, rural area there was no way to communicate with the media, or the administration or anybody [before mobiles]. This is the first tool that makes it possible."

March 12 2010


Freedom Fone Promotes Information for All in Africa

Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) strategies are viewed in many contemporary business circles as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. BoP refers to the 2.6 billion people who live below the $2 a day breadline and many business strategists argue that if targeted correctly, these consumers can offer businesses access to one of the fastest growing markets. Even if the price of products and services has to be reduced, profit can be made up in volume.

A more neutral view of BoP strategies is that they are not simply a means to make millions. Instead, they involve a pragmatic appreciation that, through commercial profit making activities, sustainable solutions can be developed that help alleviate poverty. The poor can be incorporated into the system in a mutually beneficial manner -- not only as consumers but also as producers, partners, entrepreneurs and innovators.

The Freedom Fone Strategy

Freedom Fone, a Knight-funded project, has a BoP strategy focused on building and promoting an open source software platform for information sharing that is intuitive, cost-conscious, Internet-independent and that ultimately targets all kinds of phone users. Deployers of the Freedom Fone platform can be small or large NGO's or service organizations, or even individual information activists. The goal is to broaden the base of audio information providers and facilitate the development of two-way communications within communities that have traditionally been underprivileged, marginalized and sometimes even stigmatized.

The Freedom Fone platform can be used to assist with education, learning, health care and medical support for chronic diseases like HIV/Aids, TB and malaria. Voice menus conveniently provide information on demand services, making them a useful additional channel for community radio stations and emergency response initiatives. It can be used to provide information on a full spectrum of issues, including sanitation, the environment, agriculture, fishing, business, finance, marketing, community, arts and culture news. Its 'leave-a-message' and SMS functionality can also be leveraged for citizen journalism.

Essentially, Freedom Fone is a simple but novel medium for addressing social development. The currency we are working with is knowledge, the tool we are using is the mobile phone, and the mobile function we primarily leverage is audio, through Interactive Voice Response (IVR).

Freedom Fone has focused on knowledge sharing because, in a globalized information age, access to relevant information is pivotal to development and vital for survival. Content is king and knowledge is power! However, the people who need information the most are often the ones at the bottom of the pyramid, and they tend to remain on the fringes of society. For instance, in developing countries, information flow is often blocked by restricted infrastructure, lack of resources and limited, unreliable access to computers, email and internet. Other factors such as language barriers and low literacy levels exist. In certain developing countries, this information alienation is further compounded by restrictive and authoritarian governments.

Mobile Phones Are Universal

Freedom Fone has focused on the mobile phone as the medium of communication because, according to a UN report, 60 percent of the world's population has mobile phones. By 2009 there were already over 4.5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in circulation -- and developing countries account for over two thirds of these mobile phones.

In contrast, only 25 percent of the world's population has Internet access. In Africa, there is only a 6.8 percent internet penetration rate. Thus the wide use of mobile phones bridges the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Their use cuts across the digital divide and they have the potential to act as information access equalizers. For example, in Zimbabwe, barely 5 percent of Zimbabweans have access to the internet, but there are over 3 million mobile phones contracts in a country of 11 million, which represents a penetration rate of roughly 27 percent. In South Africa -- which offers a good indication of future development patterns in Africa -- only 7 percent of the population has Internet access, but there are approximately 36 million active cell phone users, which is roughly 80 percent of the population.

To address the limited access to, and the high cost of, Internet connectivity in many developing countries, Freedom Fone has been designed so that it does not require any access to the Internet to function. The Freedom Fone server can be connected to mobile phone SIM cards, landlines and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) numbers. Callers can phone in from a landline, basic mobile phone, or soft phone like Skype. If uninterrupted power is provided, the system can be available to callers 24 hours a day, providing a valuable information on demand channel, as well as a vehicle through which the public can contribute information or queries 24/7.

Freedom Fone Features

A number of Freedom Fone's core features focus on interactive voice menus and callback functionality. By consciously marrying the mobile phone with IVR, Freedom Fone extends this previously business-oriented tool into the arena of social development and social media. By simplifying the user interface and minimizing the technical alternatives, we predict information providers will find building voice menu-based information services intuitive rather than intimidating, and cost-effective rather than costly.

Providing an alternative to the limitations imposed by the 160 characters allowed in an SMS is likely to be liberating. Freedom Fone provides a do-it-yourself platform for increased two way communication, facilitating the contribution of rich audio files by both the operator and caller. Its audio orientation offers similarities with radio programming -- however there are dramatic differences in the start up costs, required technical know-how and government regulation.

It is also interactive, as it enables end users to become information providers by contributing questions, audio content and feedback in response to the voice menus. Audio files also have the enormous benefit of surpassing the issues of literacy, going beyond language differences, as people can create and manage information in their own dialect. For deployments in Africa, audio is also strongly aligned with the oral traditions of story-telling.

Importantly, Freedom Fone has been designed to run on (and with) low-powered equipment to facilitate its deployment using solar power.

As Freedom Fone services the BoP, it is essential that deployments offer affordable, cost-effective access to information. Sadly, in Zimbabwe the cost of local mobile calls is $0.25 per minute, making call-in costs a major challenge for local deployment. The same hurdle does not exist for deployments in East Africa, where competition exists between mobile network providers and call costs are minimal. In countries where VoIP is legal, further opportunities exist because VoIP cuts costs and facilitates scalability.

The Freedom Fone platform offers the potential for cost recovery through advertising, which can be incorporated into the voice menus as short audio clips. Another option are premium numbers which can be negotiated with mobile network operators. In time, we hope to source funding to build features that facilitate micro-payments for accessing voice menu content or receiving SMS updates.

Freedom Fone aims to put information in the hands of the public by simplifying and popularizing information outreach via IVR and SMS. It is a tool for content creation, by the people and for the people. It shifts BoP solutions beyond profits by giving the punch of informative power to the people.

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