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September 2017 Monthly Report

| By: Dan McDevitt

In September, the Open Technology Fund continued to both receive a large number of support requests and to support a diverse portfolio of internet freedom projects and fellows addressing internet censorship and surveillance threats in closed societies around the world where the free flow of information is curtailed. Over the past month, the OTF team has been reviewing and responding to the 45 concept notes (requesting nearly $10 million in support) submitted for the September 1 application round, while also accepting new concept notes in advance of the November 1 round deadline.

Notable accomplishments

  • Censorship detection research platform OONI released a new report detailing internet censorship in Cuba. OONI’s Cuba report analyzes censorship on Cuba’s public wifi hotspots (the only network available to Cubans). OONI data confirmed the blocking of 41 websites, including independent news outlets, independent blogs, pro-democracy sites and even Skype.

  • OONI also released a report on internet censorship in Iran. OONI’s Iran report analyzes internet censorship in Iran between 2014-2017, confirming the blocking of over 1,000 URLs including sites for news, pro-democracy groups, opposition politics, search engines, and human rights groups. OONI found Iran’s censorship mechanisms to be “quite sophisticated” with a “centralized censorship apparatus” likely employed, as evidenced by multiple ISPs blocking the same sites and using the same blocking techniques.

  • The Sub Saharan-Africa Cyber Regionalism and Elections project released a new report on internet censorship leading up to and during Rwanda’s presidential election, held in August 2017. Through analysis of OONI data and qualitative investigation, researcher Arthur Gwagwa found that the Rwandan government continued to block access to several independent media websites, in addition to previously pressuring communication service providers to comply with content takedown requests in order to stifle public discourse on politically sensitive issues. You can access the report here.

  • K-9 Mail, an open source encrypted email client for Android, concluded their OTF-contracted work with the release of the app’s version 5.300. Prior to OTF support, the open source app was largely maintained by volunteers, leaving much needed feature, usability, and security improvements left undone - this despite K-9 having between 5 and 10 million downloads from the Google Play Store. OTF’s support focused on improving OpenPGP support and usability - a key feature of the privacy-enhancing app. Download the latest version of K-9 Mail here.

  • Net Alert released “Safer Without: Korea’s Child Monitoring & Filtering Apps,” an illustrated graphical presentation of a new Citizen Lab report detailing security and privacy vulnerabilities in apps mandated by the South Korean government for use by minors on the internet. The apps, branded and intended to be used by parents to protect their children online, are actually loaded with serious security vulnerabilities and instead open users up to attacks and breaches of privacy. ICFP fellow Geoffrey Alexander contributed to the report, which can be read in English here and in Korean here.

  • The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa was held from September 27-29 in Johannesburg, South Africa. OTF provided Community Lab support for what is the premier internet freedom gathering held on the continent, focused on facilitating collaboration between tool developers and frontline defenders as well as protecting and promoting internet rights throughout Africa. Major themes from the event included regional trends such as internet shutdowns and how to prevent or mitigate them - especially during election periods; how the digital insecurity of physical devices creates exploitable vulnerabilities for high-risk targets; and more states passing vaguely worded legislation in order to selectively crack-down on political targets. More information about the event can be found here.

  • DIFP Fellow Poncelet Ileleji has been working with media practitioners in Gambia on a digital security training module he developed called “How to train sources in safety principles”. The new government in the Gambia has set up a commission probing the assets of the former president and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be starting by early next year to look into the atrocities of the former regime. As a result, journalists and media will be relying on sensitive sources to report on these commissions. Among other topics, the most popular was on using mobile apps like WhatsApp securely to communicate with contacts. WhatsApp grew in popularity in the Gambia as a reliable and trusted tool during periods of escalated censorship.

  • DIFP Fellow Stephane Labarthe has finished a security audit and done a follow-up security training for a prominent Colombian NGO which has experienced targeted attacks due to their human rights work. Stephane is still working with their staff to better secure their devices and communication methods to keep them resilient should future attacks occur. Stephane and his colleagues at Karisma have analyzed a civic data app as part of Karisma’s other projects, discovering that tracking cookies embedded in the app when used from a Huawei phone would track data back to a Baidu web server. Further investigation of this discovery is currently underway.

  • The Localization Lab has been leading a concentrated effort to translate circumvention and digital security tools into Khmer as in Cambodia the Hun Sen regime ruthlessly shuts down or ejects independent media along with the FM stations that transmitted them, while also moving to eradicate the only opposition party ahead of national elections scheduled for July 2018. Translated tools now include Psiphon 3 and Signal. Significant contributions were also made to the universal Localization Lab glossary across several Central Asian languages, which will be helpful as the Lab moves forward working on tools for this region. Localization Lab also hosted an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) event with free self-hosting web server provider FreedomBox. Questions asked ranged in scope from technical “how to” queries to asking how to use FreedomBox in mainland China, along with questions about how to contribute to user and localization feedback.

    Select news collected by OTF from the month of September 2017 - Get the full feed live @OpenTechFund
    China Blocks WhatsApp, Broadening Online Censorship | New York Times
    Russia Threatens to Shut Facebook Over Local Data Storage Laws | Bloomberg
    China’s new cybersecurity law will damage global trade, US tells WTO | The Register
    Iran’s New Internet Minister Isn’t Delivering on Internet Freedom Promises | Motherboard
    China wants to build a credit score that dings online chat group users for their political views | Quartz
    Turks detained for using encrypted app ‘had human rights breached’ | The Guardian
    Keeping His Story Alive: The Creative Legacy of Bassel Khartabil | Global Voices Advocacy
    China detains software developer for selling service to evade internet firewall | AP

Projects Mentioned