Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Natalia Project: Civil Rights Defenders Using GSM SMS and CPRS to Send Distress Alerts

I read an interesting article in the May/June 2013 Wireless Design & Development magazine. The article was about the Natalia Project, which is named after a human rights worker Natalia Estemirova who was assassinated in 2009 as she was investigating the alleged kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial killings by Russian government troops or paramilitaries in Chechnya.

The Natalia Project is wireless alerting system (much like active RFID tags). The bracelets are able to send distress signals when activated by the wearer, or when the bracelet shows signs of tampering. The tampering sensor activates automatically if the bracelet is removed by force. If the wearer activates the alerting mechanism manually, the bracelet engages a patented locking mechanism to lock the bracelet onto the wearer's arm.

The technology used is a combination of Global System for Communications (GSM) and a Global Positioning System (GPS) chip. The GSM chip is used for sending alarms and location coordinates while Short Message Service (SMS) and other data is sent via General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). If GPS location signals are not available, locations are derived by GSM triangulation.

When a distress signal is triggered, a signal is sent via GPRS to the Civil Rights Defenders servers in Stockholm. There, the authenticity of the alarm is verified and decisions are made as to what information should be shared or posted on social media platforms. Notifying the local police is not a default action of the distress signal, since in many cases, the local police or government agencies could well be the source of the threat.

Volunteers to the Natalia Project can get involved by signing up to receive notifications of distress signals sent from human rights defenders through several social media networks. The hope is that if the public has more visibility into the continual well being of human rights workers, that those that would attack human rights workers would be aware that their actions are being watched. Knowing the exact time and location of an attack can also help catch the attacker(s) quicker and possibly prevent more killings of human rights workers around the globe.

Three years on, Natalya Estemirova's murder unsolved

The obvious caveat to the bracelet is that it must have cellular coverage in order to transmit an alert. I wonder if it's not possible to re-work the technology used in the bracelet to record periodic GPS coordinates. Then, if an alert had been triggered and the wearer was not in a cellular coverage area, the bracelet could send the last known GPS coordinates. That isn't a perfect solution, but it might be a helpful workaround.

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