Tella Transforms Activist Reporting From the Field

With support from OTF’s Internet Freedom Fund, Tella debuts an easy-to-use web server empowering human rights activists to backup their files and securely submit them to host organizations.
Wed, 2023-07-19 08:27

Since its inaugural 2019 deployment to monitor electoral integrity in Nigeria, Tella has been making it increasingly safer and easier for activists to use their phones to securely collect data and document human rights violations. Today, organizations from Belarus to Brazil rely on the app to help users report instances of injustice or abuse. Individuals collecting data are assured it will remain secure – even in high-risk situations – thanks to Tella’s rigorous commitment to privacy and a suite of security features that includes encryption as well as a camouflage mode in which the app’s interface turns into a functioning calculator.

But Tella isn’t stopping there. In response to community feedback, the team behind the innovative app is now launching Tella Web – a new open-source tool that empowers organizations to seamlessly centralize and manage reports uploaded by Tella users in the field. If you’re a journalist, activist, or researcher collecting information in risky situations, it’s never been easier to safely gather evidence on your phone and send the files back to your host organization for safekeeping. Read on to learn more about how Tella is transforming activist reporting – and how your organization can set up and self-host their very own Tella Web server.

What is Tella?

Smartphones have rapidly become some of the very best tools for capturing and sharing acts of repression or human rights violations. When operating in the field, there is almost no better way to collect data, record an interview, or capture information. But these devices and the critical evidence they store are inherently fragile. From device seizure to malfunction, data interception to destruction, all the hard work spent gathering information can be wiped away in an instant. And in certain contexts, simply choosing to use a phone as a beacon for advocacy or transitional justice threatens to put users themselves at risk, too.

Tella was created to change the realities of this unfair risk calculus.

Developed by Horizontal, a nonprofit tech team committed to co-creating technology directly with the communities that will use it, the app helps human rights defenders protect themselves from physical and digital repression by offering a secure way to capture, hide, and encrypt sensitive information on their phone. Available for download on both Android (on the Play Store and F-Droid) and iOS, Tella always prioritizes user privacy and security. That means no personally identifiable information is ever collected, and no user data is ever disclosed, shared, or sold to a third party (read Tella’s full Privacy Policy here). A wide range of security features includes:

  • Encryption at rest: All data stored in Tella is encrypted unless the app itself is unlocked – ensuring your data will remain unreadable in the event of a device seizure.
  • Encryption in transit: All data transferred between Tella and a server is protected by TLS encryption – minimizing risk when sending files back to your host organization.
  • Lock timeout: By default, Tella instantly locks any time the app is exited or the phone’s screen turns off – keeping your data secured unless you are actively accessing it.
  • Quick Delete: A customizable button enables users to swiftly delete all information stored in Tella – offering you peace of mind in emergency situations.
  • Camouflage (currently Android only): Tella can be hidden behind a fully functional calculator that only opens into the app after you input your PIN – allowing both the app and its purpose to be concealed in plain sight. The name and icon for Tella can also instead be switched to look like a standard game or weather app to make it more difficult to identify in cases of device seizure.

All of these features – and many more – are consistently audited by independent security firms, including OTF’s Red Team Lab (see their report here), to ensure Tella’s open-source code remains as robust and secure as possible. Though no app can be truly 100% secure, the team at Horizontal added as many layers of security as possible to reduce the likelihood of an adversary detecting the app or accessing its data (see potential security limitations here; access Tella’s code on their GitHub repository here).

What’s New?

Since the early days of its development, Tella has been used not only to securely document and collect information – but also to send sensitive data back to the server of a user’s host organization or partner. Yet through listening to community feedback, Horizontal learned these connections didn’t always meet the needs of certain organizations as they required the data to be collected and sent back in a structured fashion (e.g., through forms or surveys). The recent launch of Tella Web, an open-source tool designed to simplify the centralization and management of reports from Tella users, now offers an additional option for organizations of all sizes and technical capabilities that collect primarily photos, videos, and audio files.

Tella Web

Server connections are essential for organizations seeking to back up and centralize the data collected through Tella by their volunteers or activists on the ground. As a result, Tella has long offered two options to satisfy this critical need: Open Data Kit (ODK) and Uwazi. ODK is excellent for submitting structured forms and surveys, while Uwazi works well as a powerful relational database. When receiving user feedback, however, Horizontal learned of an unmet organizational need to file simple reports centered on photos, videos, and audio files. True to their commitment to collective decision-making and collaboration, the team behind Tella responded by creating Tella Web as a third server connection that is easier to set up for smaller organizations that don’t need structured data or complex data analysis capabilities.

The Horizontal team began developing the simplified open-source tool that would become Tella Web during the latter half of 2022 with support from OTF’s Internet Freedom Fund. Over the next 12 months, OTF’s funding was put to work improving the performance and maintainability of Tella Android and working towards achieving parity in the security and privacy features between the iOS and Android versions of the app. But the bulk of the team’s time and effort was spent developing Tella Web.

Notably, Tella Web isn’t a web version of the mobile app, but rather a tool that lets individuals and organizations seamlessly compile and manage reports uploaded by Tella users, including photos, videos, and audio files. With Tella Web, it’s now simple for organizations to create a variety of projects (similar to folders) where users can upload their reports from the field. Integrated with both iOS and Android Tella apps, the new tool gives oversight to a system administrator, who can set permissions and easily manage which users have the ability to upload reports to each project. As an added feature, the Horizontal team is available to provide support when choosing the best deployment setup and installing the Tella Web configuration. After an organization successfully integrates their self-hosted Tella Web server, users who receive credentials can connect their Tella apps and begin to upload reports from the field.

Tella Reports

Tella’s Reports feature offers an incredibly simple method for authorized users to securely backup their photos, videos, and audio recordings. Once submitted, host organizations can immediately begin to organize information gathered in the field and put it to use for research, advocacy, or accountability purposes. Reports can be submitted through the app in two different ways:

  • Manually: This option involves creating a “New report” on the app and selecting files to add to it. Users can also fill in additional details, such as a title or description, before choosing when to submit to a connected Tella Web server (more info here).
  • Automatically: This option ensures all photos, videos, and audio files captured with Tella are automatically and instantly submitted to a Tella Web server. When auto-reports are enabled, users can also configure Tella to automatically delete the original files on their device after completing an upload – protecting not only the preservation of evidence, but also individual safety in the event of a device seizure (more info here).

Tella Reports: Manual and automatic reports from authorized users are submitted to an organization’s self-hosted Tella Web server as soon as internet connectivity is available.

Tella Reports are also intended to operate in environments with limited or no internet connectivity. This ensures activists are able to document human rights violations no matter when or where they occur in the world. Crafting Tella’s code to enable the app to operate offline and only send data back to a server when a user once again connects to the internet was a highly technical and time-intensive process – particularly given that the Horizontal team wanted to prevent issues of intermittent internet connectivity from causing file uploads to break and need to be restarted from the beginning. Yet months of coding and debugging later, Tella Reports is equipped to do precisely that. And unlike other server connection options, no form needs to be filled out when submitting a Tella Report – speeding secure backup options for users operating in risk-based situations (more information on how to start submitting reports is available here). Using Tella to send a photo, video, or audio file back to your organization’s remote server has never been more seamless or secure.

What’s Next?

Looking to the future, the fully remote and highly diverse team at Horizontal is committed to expanding Tella’s impact and benefits. Many of these efforts center on increased accessibility and outreach, with work already underway on screen reader elements and image-based training instructions. The documentation site linked throughout this article is another new development designed to increase Tella’s accessibility and connect with members of the community (the English version of the site will soon be translated into seven additional languages). Ultimately, the goal is to ensure every person who needs Tella’s tools has access to them.

The team at Horizontal will also continue to evolve and update these tools based on community needs (as part of their holistic co-designing process, the Horizontal team holds Tella community meetings on the first Wednesday of each month via Jitsi). In response to feedback, users will soon be able to edit photos and videos directly in the app – eliminating the need to rely on third-party tools. Although all files created in Tella or imported into the app are automatically encrypted, there is currently no way to edit files or pare them down within the app itself (if users want to edit a file before uploading it to their organization’s server, they must first export the file out onto their device – which unencrypts the data and is inherently less secure). Once the editing mode is finalized, users will have the option to perform all this work within the safe confines of Tella.

But for organizations and activists already working to document instances of injustice, there’s no need to wait. You can take action now to help preserve your evidence, protect your colleagues, and power your next project through Tella. The Horizontal team is available to provide setup and security trainings to human rights organizations and journalists around the world. Contact them today or stop by Tella’s next community meeting to see which type of deployment is right for your specific needs.

About the program: The Internet Freedom Fund (IFF) is OTF’s primary way to support projects and people working on open and accessible technology-focused projects that promote human rights, Internet freedom, and open societies. The IFF accepts applications on a rolling basis through a two-step process. Applications are first submitted as concept notes. Upon positive review of an application, OTF then invites applicants to submit a full proposal. Click here to learn more and begin the application process.