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In Egypt, encryption for free speech

Whisper Systems donated its software to help Egyptian dissidents spread the word without the government listening in.

By Ilana KowarskiContributor / May 4, 2011

Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square used their cellphones to take pictures of memorials to those who had lost their lives during demonstrations against the government. Two days after this photo was taken, on Feb. 11, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File

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It's easy to think of Silicon Valley and a rebel camp in Libya or Egypt as two separate worlds. But one technology start-up is determined to bridge them through software designed for pinstriped executives but perfect for pro-democracy protestors.

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Whisper Systems, a California company that specializes in data encryption, mostly caters to businesspeople with trade secrets. But when the Arab democracy movement ignited this year, the company handed out its security software to Egyptian protesters free of charge.

The company's Android mobile phone applications RedPhone and TextSecure encode calls and text messages, protecting them from hackers, competitors – or in this case government surveillance.

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Whisper donated this software for a simple reason: Founders Moxie Marlinspike (his official alias) and Stuart Anderson say they're committed to creating a world where people can discuss politics without fear of government reprisals.

Just as new technology makes communicating around the world easier than ever, phones, e-mail, and websites make snooping a breeze as well. This year, Beijing began using cellphone GPS systems to track and suppress political demonstrations. A March raid on Egypt's state security headquarters revealed that former President Hosni Mubarak's regime closely monitored the e-mail accounts and text messages of known political activists.

Such events underscore the privacy threats posed by digital communication, says Mr. Marlinspike, a programmer who publicly demonstrates such vulnerabilities at computer-security events such as the annual Black Hat Conference.

"People think about the Internet as having this democratizing and horizontalizing effect," he says, "but the infrastructure itself is not horizontal or decentralized." Companies own the wires and servers that make up the Internet. "It is highly controlled by a small group of people."

Troubled by the possibility that technology will empower Big Brother, Marlinspike and Mr. Anderson view encryption technology as a way to push back against government spying.

That's why, when the Egyptian uprising broke out in January, Whisper changed its encryption scheme to work in the Middle East. For two weeks, the pair worked 10- to 12-hour days to ensure that their programs would be accessible to Egyptian activists during the government crackdown.

Eager to assist democracy movements throughout the world, Whisper Systems wants to expand its humanitarian operations beyond Egypt and to provide its software to activists in nations like Belarus, where opposition movements have been forced underground.

Most cellphones lack strong encryption, so dissidents take severe risks when they use them to communicate, especially in countries where antigovernment speech is criminalized, says Katrin Verclas, co-founder of MobileActive, a global network that uses cellphones for social change.

Cellphone technology easily hacked

Hackers have found many ways to break into the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), the network technology used by most of the world's cellphones, including those on AT&T and T-Mobile. Last year, coders released software capable of cracking the encryption algorithm used by many GSM phones, and in December a group of researchers in Berlin publicly demonstrated ways to eavesdrop on GSM calls with relatively inexpensive and unsophisticated equipment.

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