Nearly three years before thousands of Egyptian activists took to the streets to boot former president Hosni Mubarak from office, there was a much more quiet fight over bread and cell phones. On April 6, 2008, Egyptians demanded government accountability for a growing shortage of bread. Protesters tore down posters of the president and shouted anti-government slogans. More than 12,000 people had been detained by police for selling flour on the black market, facts that helped to swell the outrage. Many of the protesters were also armed with cell phones, which they used to take photos and text messages.
By December, 22 people were convicted of crimes related to their roles in the food riots. And by February, Vodafone, the world’s second leading mobile wireless carrier, announced that the company had been forced by Egyptian authorities to hand over communications data that helped implicate the protesters and lead to their convictions.
The incident sparked fierce debate over the advantages and perils of government regulation, particularly in countries swept up in civil unrest. But it was also a rude awakening for activists who relied on their phones to help do their political work. Yes, Big Brother is watching, and there aren’t many rules to say just how long he can watch, and how much he can see. Activists in Egypt found that out again last year during Arab Spring protests, when Mubarak’s regime ordered the company to suspend cell phone service to once again thwart activist organizing efforts.
While Vodafone’s brand may not be familiar to many U.S. subscribers, the British-based company has a deep history in America’s mobile phone market. It owns 40 percent of Verizon Wireless, which is the U.S.’s second largest mobile carrier, and was an instrumental part of Bell Atlantic’s transformation into Verizon back in 1999.
Today, America’s mobile phone market is at a crossroads. A growing number of people of color are using smartphones to help bridge the digital divide. Industry and government are scrambling to find answers to two big questions: how to keep phones working as more and more customers sign up, and how to determine the amount of privacy those users should get. Meanwhile, activists are worried that the Egyptian bread riot convictions will become the norm unless subscribers in the U.S. take serious precautions.
“Cell phones are some of the most insecure technologies we have available to us,” said Josh Levy, Internet Campaign Director at Free Press, noting that they also carry some of our most sensitive information. “That is ripe for abuse from carriers and from law enforcement.”
Levy mentioned that police surveillance at Occupy Wall Street protests focused heavily on obtaining protesters’ cell phones. Phones — with their call logs, text message histories, images and videos — leave their owners vulnerable to surveillance. The same goes for the networks that subscribers use, which can track users’ locations.
“Average Verizon users are highly unlikely to even know about Vodafone’s share in Verizon,” says Katherine Maher, a policy fellow at Access Now, a group that works on global tech issues. Maher noted that there’s little overlap between the two companies, but the challenges facing activists are the same.
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In the U.S., both companies and customers want better phones that run faster. This has posed a unique problem because the country’s infrastructure is badly in need of an upgrade. To fix this problem, several of the U.S.’s top carriers have tried to come up with creative ways to build faster networks to meet growing demand. Usually, it’s meant a proposed merger with a company that’s got highly prized spectrum. That was the impetus behind AT&T’s failed bid to buy up T-Mobile last year. And now Verizon’s seeking approval from the Federal Communications Commission to buy wireless spectrum from cable companies. The Senate’s anti-trust subcommittee is set to take up the issue at a hearing set for March 21.
These bigger and faster networks will undoubtedly draw in more users who rely on their phones to do much more than just talk. And it’s already caused political headaches for activists in the U.S. Last summer, BART managed to shut down wireless service in and around its downtown San Francisco stations after activists staged days of protest to condemn the killing of an unarmed homeless man by San Francisco police officers.
“It often takes a crisis, it takes something to happen, for people to then realize we should have been more proactive on the front end,” Amalia Deloney said about the BART protests.
Deloney thinks that it’s this history that ties Vodafone and Verizon together. “We have a lot of history in the United States for social movements — whether it’s reproductive rights whether it’s environmental justice — where [companies] develop rules and regulations that they try out in other areas and refine and then bring back home.”
Indeed, questions about security have bubbled to the surface of online protests in recent months. In January, Internet users and high profile tech companies like Google and Wikipedia staged an online blackout in protest of proposed SOPA legislation that critics said would have unfairly punished users suspected of downloading copyrighted content. Google has come under intense scrutiny for the launch of its new privacy settings, in which the company collapsed users’ search engine histories across its multiple products to track and advertise to customers.
“With smart phones, tablet computers, and laptops, we carry around with us an unprecedented amount of sensitive personal information,” said Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “That smart phone in your pocket right now could contain email from your doctor or your kid’s teacher, not to mention detailed contact information for all of your friends and family members. Your laptop probably holds even more data — your Internet browsing history, family photo albums, and maybe even things like an electronic copy of your taxes or your employment agreement. This is sensitive data that’s worth protecting from prying eyes.”
The current battle is “more than just a pocketbook issue,” says Levy. “It becomes an issue that effects the way we communicate in a democracy.”