A new mobile phone app called Umbrella has launched promising to secure journalist and human rights activist communications.
The app was launched by London-based organisation Security First on Monday and is currently only available on Android. According to the website it provides a checklist of processes and best practices to help keep communications secure. It also provides a list of current risks in the area that the journalist or human rights activist is operating in. Unfortunately that requires location-based data to be turned on, something that has made it far easier for security services and governments to track people.
Protecting communications also a corporate priority
While the initial focus of the application appears to be about protecting journalists and human rights activists communications is has a much further reach than that. Corporate executives flying around the world are key targets for government spies, industrial espionage and organised crime. Despite the best efforts of IT and security teams to educate executives, having an app that acts as a checklist that they can follow can only help improve their security awareness.
Even individuals travelling in certain parts of the world are subject to continuing communication intercept and as people increasingly do financial transactions on their mobile devices, there is temptation to suggest that this app also applies to them.
Source code published online
The website is fairly light on the details of what Umbrella does and the launch was very low key as you might expect from an organisation that is made up of some very experienced security professionals. There is a very good FAQ on the website that gives more information on the app but stops short of giving anything remotely technical.
What the website does make clear is that the app was developed as a collaboration between Security First and the NGO and open-tech communities. As such, it is likely to get a very wide distribution among its target audience especially in those areas where it is most needed. Interestingly for a security app, Security First appear to made the source code and their strategic plans public although we were unable to download it this morning.
No doubt the code is already being tested and validated by various agencies and government sponsored hacking groups around the world but the FAQ states that: “Umbrella’s code has also been positively audited by independent security code audit company, iSec Partners.” iSec Partners have a very good reputation for their security testing which should give potential users a good level of confidence in the application.
The app has now gone into Beta and Security First are already actively looking for a number of people who are willing to try it out. Presumably those in some of the most dangerous places on the planet will get priority status here. Given that CEO Rory Byrne has operated in some of those places he may already have filled all the initial beta places with people he knows. However, anyone interested in trying the app should contact Security First via their website.
While the first version of the app has been made available in English only, the company is planning to translate it into a range of other languages. Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Turkish, Mandarin and Farsi all being listed on their website as target languages.
Unfortunately, much of the translation work will be dependent upon donations although it is likely that following a successful trial Security First will have no problems raising the funds to support people in these areas. The ex-pat and refugee communities of those countries it is covering will no doubt be keen to get involved.
The only disappointment is that the app is only available on Android and not iPhone, Windows Phone or any of the Linux phones. While this is clearly an attempt to get it to the widest possible audience it will be interesting to see when or if the company chooses to port it to other operating systems.
The announcement of a new app to once again raise the level of security around mobile communications will no doubt have various governments and spy agencies grinding their teeth this morning. There appears to be a global campaign to weaken encryption protection worldwide to make personal communications easier to spy upon.
As a result anything that improves the protection for journalists and human rights activists communications is to be welcomed, especially given the significant rise in arrests and jailing of both groups in many regions around the world.