To the free world, they’re places to chat, laugh and hang out but in some countries social networks are far more important.   Much has been spoken of the role of social networking sites in civil protests.  Many people think that the Arab Spring wouldn’t have happened without the likes of Twitter, Facebook and other similar sites.  Certainly these sites make it easier for people to share information and arrange demonstrations – however the danger of using these is often ignored or at best understated.

The problem is that although these sites are indeed well used by protesters and human rights activists throughout the world, they are also extensively monitored by security services and governments too.  Countries like Iran and Syria have many people monitoring these sites, with the advantage that they also control the infrastructure.  If needed any security service can block or throttle access to any part of the internet they desire, restricting access is not a problem.  The reality is that they are a huge source of valuable information on anyone protesting in their country.

This is why human rights organisations are developing a series of technologies to reduce the risks.  There are basic steps which should be taken by anyone for example encrypting your connection and routing through a UK proxy server or any Western democracy.

Take for instance a protester uploading a picture of regime brutality or a demonstration using their mobile phone.  It is of course important to get information like this out to the outside world, however any image might reveal the identities of fellow protesters, locations and put peoples lives at further risk.   One application that has been for mobile phones is called Obscurecam – developed by human rights activists it allow people to censor pictures on their phones quickly and easily.  You could perhaps blur the faces of protesters or any information that might give away location.

This is the first of many applications to be developed with  the intention of making sharing information slightly safer in places like Iran.  However there is a limit to how much you can do when a regime does control all internet access and has huge resources at it’s disposal.  It’s difficult for people to be completely anonymous but there’s no doubt that web posts like this – and these security applications help.]