Crisis mapping conflict: Unrest in the Middle East has highlighted the need to secure crisis maps. Above, Jordanians rally in support of Syrian rebels.
Crisis mapping has had a major impact in the last 18 months, helping to collate information and coordinate activities during the Haitian earthquake in early 2010 and the Japanese tsunami that struck earlier this year.
But crisis mapping tools are increasingly springing up in politically fraught situations, too; most notably, they have been used to provide humanitarian relief during the protests that have swept through the Middle East in recent months. Since some authorities may want to undermine these efforts, or even attack those involved, it’s becoming vital to protect these systems from interference, says George Chamales, a hacker and activist who has served as technical lead for crisis map deployments in Libya, Pakistan, and Sudan.
Crisis mapping tools—which combine communications technologies with a Web-based platform for analysis—can be used to organize information contributed by participants using mobile phones and other devices, and to display important updates on a live map.
“The groups [building] humanitarian response technology are using the same [Web 2.0] technology [hackers] are used to going after, but they’re doing it in a really hostile situation where there are huge consequences if something goes wrong,” Chamales told an audience of security researchers at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas. Chamales called on the community to help test crisis map technology and protect it from sabotage.
Crisis mapping came to prominence during the Haitian earthquake, when the technology proved vitally useful to rescue efforts. But Chamales notes that the current trend is to deploy crisis mapping tools in difficult political situations. “The problem is that natural disasters don’t shoot back,” he says.
There have been no recorded incidents of a crisis mapping tool being misused or attacked by a political enemy so far, but this could soon change, Chamales says. For example, when a crisis map was deployed to help with flood relief efforts in Pakistan, the Taliban issued threats to foreign aid workers. “And there we were building a giant map showing exactly where those workers would be,” he says.
Tense situations like the one in Pakistan have made workers and volunteers cautious. When deploying a crisis map in Libya, for example, volunteers initially kept the map private and password-protected. When they opened a map for the public, they were careful to keep that separate from the information collected for the private map. If the information on the private map were available to anyone, it could have endangered some activists.
Chamales says that crisis maps can’t afford to go through the same security-related tumult that often strikes maturing technologies. In a hostile political situation, he says, leaking information could lead to people being arrested or killed. Or, if a site is knocked offline by an attack, people could lose a lifeline. “If these technologies get labeled as dangerous to run,” Chamales says, “major organizations could stop using them. The information might still be out there, people might still be talking, but no one would be listening.”