Our team was heavily inspired by the Google Shield project, a product that provides freedom of speech to people all around the world via a technology. The Google Ideas team indirectly showed us that, over the last decade, certain basic human rights have become strongly tied to technology and how much access we all have to it. We figured that whatever we built at Hack the Planet would follow in Google's footsteps and provide a basic human right to an oppressed group of people, the people living in ISIS-controlled territories.
Reporters and civilians (insiders) living in ISIS-controlled territories have had their freedom of speech massively cut off by ISIS. These insiders are struggling to safely communicate with the outside world (outsiders). Furthermore, insiders are subject to random search and seizure by ISIS officials. They confiscate their phones and laptops and thoroughly search them, interrogating any passwords/pins out of the owner. If they find anything "incriminating" then ISIS arrests the owner and potentially tortures and/or beheads them.
Fuck ISIS, we came to Hack the Planet to give the insiders their freedom back.
How it works
Reach is a secure communication platform that works for both desktop and mobile. Insiders download an app that, to the unsuspecting eye, is just a calculator. However, to the owner of the phone, upon entering a unique code via the calculator interface, the calculator view dismisses to show Reach's chat application! From here, an insider can initiate a chat with an outsider over an SSL-encrypted connection. Every message sent by the insider is deleted after a fixed period of time to ensure no "incriminating" information is left lying around. Outsiders can then reply via the web platform and they retain all of the messages safely on their computer. Outsiders can never initiate conversations so there's little-to-no risk of a member of ISIS signing up for the platform to identify any insiders. As a final precaution, each user is identified and represented by a 128-character alphanumeric code rather than their name. Only the people within the chat can see this code.
Challenges I ran into
With each added feature, we had to ensure that our platform wouldn't endanger insiders. We had to change up our model a bit to fit what was technically possible with what was logically safe. Many of us weren't as experienced with some of the tools we were using so, naturally, we faced technical challenges throughout the whole process.
Accomplishments that I'm proud of
We have built something that provides a safer alternative to the existing communication methods for people in ISIS-controlled territories. This may very well save at least one life during one of ISIS' spontaneous searches and we deployed the app to Syrian users this weekend!
What I learned
Our team was pretty inexperienced in regard to a lot of technologies we used so we ended up learning a lot about various tools.
What's next for Reach (counter-ISIS communication)
We will be sending the app to the Google Ideas team so they can try to break it and suggest technical improvements. There are many more oppressed people beyond the middle east and we hope to extend the product to fit the needs of anyone who wants to safely communicate with the outside world!