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Chamales will also deliver his appeal this weekend at Defcon, another Las Vegas conference, but geared toward a more informal audience of hacking enthusiasts.

One problem is that crisis maps are often set up under extreme time pressure. “We don’t know the people setting this up, and the classic model is to support whoever has momentum,” Chamales says.

Crisis mappers have been working with Chamales and others to implement better security. “We’re hoping [Chamales] will catalyze some support to address these issues,” says Patrick Meier, director of crisis mapping and new media at Ushahidi, an open-source platform that has pioneered the technology (and was originally used to collect information after Kenya’s disputed elections in 2007). “The platform, as it stands, is not designed to be used in hostile environments. So every time a group or individual does so, we explicitly tell them about the security issues of using technologies in general in hostile environments.”

Meier says that Ushahidi has spent months trying to get a grant to bring someone on board to help with security. In the meantime, the organization offers a long list of guidelines for communicating securely via e-mail, mobile devices, and social networks. This includes a how-to for Tor, technology that can hide a user’s Web browsing; how to use strong passwords and more secure e-mail accounts; and how to encrypt instant-message conversations. 

Ushahidi also collects and posts security vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.

“Crisis mapping is a form of media, and media becomes a contested space when real-world conflicts are taking place,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a board member for Ushahidi and a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “There’s been online conflict over the #Syria hashtag, for instance,” Zuckerman adds, “as pro- and anti-government forces use Twitter to communicate about the protests and government response.”

Zuckerman says the community has long been taking steps to address security. For example, shortly after Ushahidi’s launch, the team began a project called Swift River, designed to help people receiving real-time reports determine which ones are credible. But he adds: “As crisis maps become more prominent, it’s increasingly important to consider them as contested spaces, and to take seriously the idea that adversaries will try to manipulate them.”

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Tagged: Computing, Web, security, DEFCON, Ushahidi, crisis reporting

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