July 16, 2001 8:35 AM PDT

Hacking for human rights

LAS VEGAS--Human rights activists put out a call to hackers here to help get the word out about their cause--not by having them deface sites, but by creating applications that can help the organizations manage data.

Greg Walton, a freelance human rights researcher, spoke to hackers at the Def Con conference in support of the Hacktivismo project, an attempt to create an anonymous, private way of getting human rights information across the Internet while protecting the identities of those who report the abuses.

"We are talking about more constructive, more positive ways of dealing with human rights abuses," said Walton, who is studying how the Chinese government is censoring the Internet for its citizens. "It's not ethical to own someone's Web site as a way of getting the message out."

Started by the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc), a group of hackers and performance artists, the project's first goal will be to finish an application known as Peekabooty, which will form the infrastructure of such a private network. Though the cDc originally expected to release the software at Def Con, which concluded Sunday, unresolved technical problems have put the project on hold.

While the number of people that are prevented from speaking about human rights abuses cannot be quantified, the need for such an application is great, said Patrick Ball, deputy director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science and Human Rights program.

Potential human rights informants "know that governments monitor the Internet, so in many cases they won't send e-mail to report abuse," he said. Ball also called for hackers to produce easier-to-use code to protect privacy.

Referring to his own project cataloging human rights abuses, Ball said that a way of storing information on the individual incidents is also necessary.

Using a simple database, Ball and his colleagues were able to track the war crimes in Bosnia, Haiti and other trouble spots. The group also kept track of the people commanding the forces that committed the crimes and presented summaries of the data to the respective peacekeeping forces.

"We didn't get the (commanders) put in prison, but we did get them taken out of positions of power," he said, referring to the results of posting statistics in public places in Bosnia.

Hackers in the United States and other countries where abuses are infrequent should not be complacent, Ball stressed. Technology like Peekabooty could help prevent the censorship of all sorts of information.

"What if you write a piece of code that someone doesn't like?" he asked, making a veiled reference to the DeCSS case in which the movie industry has successfully prosecuted Web sites that have posted the DVD-decrypting code.

These types of incidents should convince hackers that censorship affects everyone, he said. "It's time to support your own community."

 

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