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Nico Sell is a US-based entrepreneur and activist for online privacy and secure digital communication. Sell is the CEO of Wickr, a private messaging app with watertight encryption technology. Messages sent using the app self-destruct after a length of time adjusted by the sender – from six days to one second – and are then overwritten by gibberish data on the sender’s and receiver’s phones, making them impossible to recreate.
“Wickr is a messaging app that allows you to send pictures, videos and files, but the only difference is that only you have the keys, so we don’t see who any of our users are, or what they are sending. We are essentially just a transports of gibberish, and it’s used by a lot of human rights fighters around the world for those reasons”, Sell told Index on Censorship.
Wickr’s secure encryption and lack of a central database distinguishes it from similar apps such as Snapchat, which was hacked in January 2014 and had its users’ details posted online. After the breach, downloads of Wickr increased by 50 per cent.
Files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed the extent to which the US National Security Agency had covertly retrieved users’ personal data from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and others. Many other countries were also shown to be extracting information from tech companies: the Venezuelan government, for example, has been accused of broadcasting human rights activists’ Skype calls on national television to intimidate them.
But Wickr was designed to run without a master key that could decrypt its users’ messages, which means it has no user information to hand over to the authorities if they demand it. Indeed, in early 2014 Sell rebuffed an FBI agent who informally requested that she implement a backdoor into Wickr, so that its data could be acquired if necessary.
Wickr has been downloaded more than three million times since launching in 2012. Since then it has added secure photo- and video-sending features. In December 2014 it was launched in desktop form. Sell hopes that billions of people will eventually use either Wickr or services incorporating it, and envisions its technology being used for “all the financial transactions in the world”.
Sell has also acted as a venture catalyst for more than 20 successful digital security companies and has co-organised Defcon, the largest hacker conference in the world, for over a decade. She is the group’s liaison with federal agencies seeking the services of white-hat hackers, who probe organisations’ websites for flaws in their security systems.
Sell told Index that she got involved with this field of work when was introduced to The Dark Tangent, founder of Defcon, about 15 years ago. She began working with him, and was “educated by the very best hackers in the world.”
“That’s where they taught me things like why lawful intercepts is something we don’t want to do, because if you can break into it, what that means is a backdoor for the good guys will always mean a backdoor for the bad guys,” she said.
“I think security and privacy naturally go in hand together, but I think just understanding the underlying technology and what’s going on making privacy obvious.”
Every year at Defcon, Sell runs a nonprofit training camp for children and teenagers called R00tz Asylum, which she is also CEO and co-founder of, in which digital skills such as white-hat hacking techniques are taught.
“So we teach them things like how to eavesdrop on cell phone calls, look at other people’s text messages that are going over the wireless network, turning on your interfacing camera on your computer or smartphone or smartTV, and how to break into lawful intercept machines,” Sell said. She added that the point of this, is that people need to understand hacks so that better systems can be built.
Sell raises awareness of the need for individuals to take more care over their digital privacy through frequent public engagement talks. At these talks, she hands out stickers for her audience to place over all their front-facing cameras. She also explains why she always wears sunglasses in public – to block facial recognition software – and keeps her phone and passport in an unhackable Faraday cage.
When asked about the relationship between online privacy and freedom of expression, Sell said:
“I think it’s vitally important. 52 per cent of the world still lives under dictatorship, and I think that what brought my founders together is that there was the belief that private correspondence is a universal human right, and in fact, the most important human right that we have for the next decade as we’re bringing all of these billions of people online and having a way for them to have private conversations without interference from government, or even a bigger threat, is corporations who are buying and selling this information.
“It’s our belief that if we can provide this vital right to everyone no matter our frontier, then we can have more evolution instead of revolution, because you don’t get pent up energy and people backed in a corner if there is open communication and education. So we think it’s vitally important in society as we all get connected over the next decade.”
Syria Tracker is a crisis mapping platform which collates and exhibits live data on human rights abuses and other welfare issues brought about by the Syrian conflict. Reports of killings, rapes, water and food tampering, and chemical attacks ongoing in Syria are geolocated and collated onto a live map by US-based volunteers.
Syria Tracker synthesises two pre-existing data-sourcing platforms: Harvard University’s Healthmap, which mines online sources to monitor disease outbreaks; and the crowdsourcing tool Ushahidi, originally built in 2008 to monitor post-election violence in Kenya.
The combination makes for meticulous accuracy, since data from one source is triangulated with the other, and unverified information is discarded – the volunteers behind Syria Tracker estimate that they only use 6 per cent of on-the-ground reports received. The news-tracking tool covers anti- and pro-Assad news sources to reduce potential bias.
The bloody conflict between the Syrian government and opposition groups, sparked by the 2011 protests across the Arab world and reignited in 2014 by the advance of IS, has made the country one of the deadliest in the world for journalists, with one of the worst records for free press. Syria Tracker’s founders encourage its civilian reporters to contribute anonymously, using encryption software such as Tor.
It uses a combination of user-generated reports, photos and videos – more than 80,000 of which have been sent to Syria Tracker since the conflict broke out in 2011 – and computer-aggregated data. The tool has digitally mined 180,000 articles from 2,000 news sources, and has also searched through more than 80 million tweets.
The map aims to provide Syrians and external relief-providers with a holistic depiction of the conflict, which is more accurate and up-to-date than traditional news sources are able to supply. In early 2014, for example, Syria Tracker warned of an outbreak of polio days before other news outlets, thanks to early civilian reports.
By assembling otherwise diverse data, the map has also illustrated developing trends in the country’s violent fighting. For example, in 2014 Syria Tracker showed a rise in the percentage of total deaths which were of women or children, indicating a rise in civilian targeting.
“It’s such a great honour to be nominated for the award,” said Taha Kass-Hout, founder of Syria Tracker, in a recent interview with Index on Censorship. “It shows that those voices on the ground that are sharing with the rest of the world are not going unheard. It shows them that the data that they are sharing means something,”
Valor por Tamaulipas is a crowd-sourced news platform, based in Mexico and set up in 2012 to fill the void created by the region’s cartel-induced media blackout.
Valor’s online followers – more than half a million on Facebook and 125,000 on Twitter – send in reports of cartel-related violence, such as shootings, robberies, or missing people. These reports are immediately curated and disseminated by the page administrator, with a hashtag such as #SDR (situación de riesgo ie “situation of risk”) attached.
From its inception, Valor por Tamaulipas (which means Courage for Tamaulipas) has been under constant threat by cartels. In 2013 leaflets were distributed throughout the state offering 600,000 pesos (~£25,000) to anyone with information on the page’s management. This prompted Valor’s administrator – whose identity has always been a closely kept secret – to temporarily suspend activities and relocate their family to the US.
A representative from Valor por Tamaulipas told Index, “The nomination is important for people in the state of Tamaulipas, and for those who see this community as a dependable way of showing what criminals and corrupt authorities are doing.”
Tamaulipas is a border state in northeastern Mexico, which has witnessed some of the country’s most ferocious and bloody cartel-related crime over the past few years. Recently this has escalated, in February a newspaper editor was kidnapped and beaten, and a grenade was thrown at a television station that had been reporting on drug crime. In March, the mayor of Matamoros – a city within the state – survived an ambush.
The Mexican government is also criticised for trying to cover-up the extent of the situation and seeking to present a more positive image to the outside world. As a result, citizens of this state have looked increasingly to social media channels and blogs, which may have flaws and bias, but professional journalism is severely restricted to the point of near blackout.
“The principle motivation is to give citizens a voice, and other objectives arise from here – such as spreading the word on missing people, on the modus operandi of criminals, on corrupt authorities and on current ‘risk situations’, so people know about insecurity in certain areas,” added the representative.
“The community is also a space for those from small or rural areas; crimes that happen there are equally despicable, but people who live there have an disadvantage as there are less people who share and retweet information.”
María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, co-administrator of a similar page Esperanza por Tamaulipas, was kidnapped and murdered by cartel members in October 2014. Rubio had frequently shared up-to-date information about violent incidents in Tamaulipas to her thousands of Twitter followers, using an anonymous Twitter handle. Her killers used her Twitter account to reveal her identity, post her “confession”, and give warnings to other Valor administrators to keep silent. They also posted pictures of her dead body.
Rubio’s death temporarily halted activity at Valor por Tamaulipas, and in November the administrator suggested that control of the pages would be transferred to someone associated with the authorities. But after complaints from followers that the page’s content would suffer, the previous anonymous administrator has taken charge of the page once again, and has been posting dozens of alerts each day since.
Atlatszo.hu is an investigative news outlet founded and managed by Tamas Bodoky, the main goal of which is to promote free, transparent circulation of information in Hungary. The website, which receives around 500,000 unique visitors per month, acts as watchdog to a Hungarian government which has increasingly tightened its grip on press freedom in the country.
Atlatszo.hu produces investigative reports based on FOI requests, and instigates FOI lawsuits in cases where its requests are refused. In 2014, it has uncovered cases of state control of the media, election fraud, government corruption, tax fraud, and misuse of public funds.
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who announced intentions to build an “illiberal state” in summer 2014, has in the past year overseen the unexplained dismissal of a news editor who revealed expenses fraud within the government, and the introduction of new media taxes designed to cripple independent news outlets. His proposed “internet tax”, which would charge Hungarian citizens 150 forints (£0.37) per gigabyte of downloaded data, prompted countrywide protests in October. Critics saw the move as an attempt to curb freedom of information.
In 2014 the government also initiated a crackdown on Hungarian NGOs which were funded by Norwegian grants aiming to strengthen civil society in the poorer parts of Europe. These NGOs, several of which have been raided by police forces since July 2014, were accused by the government of acting on behalf of “leftist” foreign interests. The smear campaign against these NGOs was taken up by the country’s biggest media outlets, the majority of which are heavily influenced by the government.
Atlatszo.hu was included on the NGO blacklist, and Atlatszo’s partner organisation, the Asimov Foundation, was also investigated. Bodoky has quipped: “We are very glad to be included [on the list]. It would have been most embarrassing to be left out.”
Through the Asimov Foundation, Bodoky runs workshops with citizens and other NGOs in investigative journalism. The Foundation also solicits FOI requests from the general public using a request generator called KiMitTud (“Who knows what?”), through which around 1300 FOI requests are sent each year. In response to this service, the government introduced an amendment to Hungary’s FOI act in 2013 which allowed “excessive” requests for information to be ignored.
Atlatszo.hu also hosts platforms through which corruption can be easily and anonymously reported. MagyarLeaks, a Tor-based whistleblowing service, was launched in 2011 and prompted the government to investigate Bodoky and seize his hard drive. Late in 2013, a crowdsourced platform called Fizettem was launched, which allows everyday corruption such as police bribes to be reported anonymously.
“We are very proud of this nomination. We think that is very important to encourage critical media in Hungary,” Bodoky said in a recent interview with Index.
11 March: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Asimov Foundation’s offices were raided. They were not.