FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
February 6, 2012
San Francisco—The team leader of a two-year-old project that’s enhancing the safety, security, and effectiveness of activists and human rights defenders from Syria and Tibet to Afghanistan and Burma has become the sixth annual winner of the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest.
The $10,000 Pizzigati Prize honors software developers who are tapping the spirit of open source computing to fashion exceptional applications that aid activists and nonprofits. Tides—a partner to philanthropists and activists worldwide—hosts the prize selection process.
This year’s Pizzigati Prize winner, Nathan Freitas, leads the Guardian Project, a team of software developers working to address what may be the cruelest irony of our mobile technology era. On the one hand, mobile phones have become absolutely essential to struggles for political and economic justice all across the world. On the other, as Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society has noted, mobile devices can be “profoundly unsafe” for the activists who use them. The world’s most repressive governments can exploit mobile technology to monitor and track down protestors and their organizations.
That reality first struck Nathan Freitas when he started working to support Tibetan human rights activists who would regularly be risking their freedom—and even lives—on trips into China and Tibet. Mobile phones would be the activists’ only tether to the outside world.
“I felt that if we could make those phones more tuned to their needs, both from a security and functionality perspective,” says the 36-year-old Freitas, “that would help bolster their cause and make their sacrifices count.”
The Guardian Project that Freitas leads has released a suite of privacy and security-minded mobile applications for Android phones. All the apps come free and, notes Freitas, “can run just as well on $100 smartphones available in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia as they do on higher-end models popular in the United States and Europe.”
Over 100,000 users have already downloaded the new apps that Freitas and his team have developed. One of these apps shields the safety and privacy on instant messages sent via mobile phones. Another lets users access blocked and censored Web content.
The most remarkable of these security apps? That may be “Secure Smart Cam,” an amazing camera app for smartphones that human rights defenders can use to more safely capture and distribute human rights digital media.
Freitas developed the app jointly with WITNESS, a human rights video organization. With Secure Smart Cam, activists can obscure faces that appear on the videos they shoot. Another side of the software, soon to be available, will verify smartphone images and video—and make these visuals more compelling as digital evidence of human rights violations.
Freitas spent ten years earlier in his career working in the commercial mobile technology industry. He watched mobile phones become “the central storage for all of our personal contacts, communications and even intimate thoughts.”
“It pained me,” says Freitas, “to see how little corporate product companies were considering the privacy implications and risks inherent in that.”
Freitas soon realized that the open-source community could help offset the dangers to privacy that activists faced. In 2003, he began working with that community on new mobile tools and network services that could allow activists to “coordinate, protest, and campaign in a more efficient and effective manner, no matter where they were on the planet.”
Freitas has been at that work ever since, and he knows, from the feedback his team has received, that the work is making a real difference. One recent email he received came from a user of Guardian Project apps who lived in a nation where authorities heavily “filter”—censor—the Web. Wrote the user in appreciation: “U are saving us from being in prison of filtering.”
Sentiments like that, notes Freitas, provide software developers like him “many more times satisfaction than any IPO or start-up acquisition could ever have.”
Freitas says he’ll be using his Pizzigati Prize $10,000 award on a variety of fronts, for everything from gifts for his fellow developers—who’ve been “sacrificing fantastic high-paying jobs they could all easily get to join me in this work”—to travel expenses that will help take the Guardian Project “on the road” to hook up with local activists.
Freitas doesn’t see the mobile-technology threats that activists face disappearing anytime soon. But the rising number of activists now using open-source tools has Freitas really encouraged.
“Open messaging protocols, virtual servers, public key cryptography—all the things that engineers have known how to leverage for years to collaborate securely and efficiently—organizers, activists, and journalists can now use,” says Freitas, “It’s really fantastic.”
Freitas, a Sacramento native, currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. He advises groups involved in social change all around the world and also teaches at New York University's Interactive Telecommunication's Program.
Nathan Freitas will receive this year’s Pizzigati Prize in a presentation during the National Technology Network’s 2012 Nonprofit Technology Conference, set to begin April 3 in Washington, D.C.
This year’s Pizzigati Prize judging panel included three previous winners of the prize—Darius Jazayeri, Yaw Anokwa, and Ken Banks—and two veteran professionals who have each earned wide respect within the nonprofit computing world, Joseph Mouzon and Erika Bjune.
The deadline for next year’s Pizzigati Prize will be December 1, 2012. Applications forms and background information will be available later this year at the Pizzigati Prize Web site.
About The Pizzigati Prize
The Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest goes annually to an open source software developer who is adding significant value to the nonprofit sector and movements for social change.
The prize honors the brief life of Tony Pizzigati, an early advocate of open source computing. Born in 1971, Tony spent his college years at MIT, where he worked at the world-famous MIT Media Lab. Tony died in 1995, in an auto accident on his way to work in Silicon Valley.
To learn more about the prize and its judging criteria, visit www.pizzigatiprize.org.
Tides, the Pizzigati Prize selection process host, partners with philanthropists, foundations, activists, and organizations across the United States and around the globe to promote economic justice, robust democratic processes, and the opportunity to live in a healthy and sustainable environment where human rights are preserved and protected.
A nonprofit founded in 1976, Tides provides an array of services that amplify the efforts of forward-thinking individuals and organizations. For more information, visit www.tides.org.