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Digital Solution Helps Shield Online Activists

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Computer users are seen at an internet cafe in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in this March 3, 2011 file photo. (REUTERS/Nacho Doce)
Computer users are seen at an internet cafe in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in this March 3, 2011 file photo. (REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

Chris Doten knows how dangerous conditions can be for democracy activists and journalists working under hostile governments. He is the head of digital technology programs at the National Democratic Institute, a non-governmental organization that supports openness in government. He helps news reporters and democracy activists protect their privacy from government spying while online.

"We do work in relatively closed societies," Mr. Doten said. "There are a lot of dangers, and we always try to take a thoughtful look at the risks that we're incurring for the people we're working with."

Those risks often include government raids, computer seizure, theft of private data and the identification of supporters and private email communications. These invasions can lead to arrest, expulsion from a country or worse. But Chris Doten said there's a technological solution that is helping people around the world protect their online activities.

It is called The Amnesic Incognito Live System or "Tails." In computer terms, a "live system" is a stand-alone operating system that runs directly off a DVD or, increasingly, a USB memory stick. A live system uses only on a computer's RAM. None of the operating system files are saved anywhere.

Once downloaded to a portable disk drive or USB, users simply connect Tails to any computer and run it. When taken out of the computer, the live system leaves no evidence of ever being used on the computer.

Chris Doten says Tails comes with additional security applications that users can easily access.

"There's also a multi-protocol chat client that can speak to Facebook, Google Chat, and others called Pidgin' he added.

A growing number of journalists and rights groups are using Tails.

The non-profit group Reporters Without Borders works in support of freedom of the press. It has suggested Tails for journalists who need to protect their sources. Activists in Tibet use Tails to securely document human-rights abuses there by the Chinese government. And groups working to fight violence within families are now using Tails to report abuse and protect victims' identities.

But the same system that helps protect human rights activists can be used by hackers, criminals or terrorists to hide their identity and activities online.

Mr. Doten said the real concern should be how often Internet activists, journalists and others are targeted online and then punished for their activities.

"I'm frankly shocked at the state of digital security among U.S. journalists," he said. "People who have real dangers that they've seen externally and internally at times."

"The fact that newsrooms around the country - even the big ones - are not investing more in this I think is a real crime.'

I'm Jonathan Evans.

VOA's Doug Bernard wrote this story from Washington. Jonathan Evans adapted it for Learning English. The editor was George Grow.

Words in this Story

journalist(s) - n. a person who writes news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, radio, or online publications

digital - adj. using or characterized by computer technology

online - adj. done over the Internet

data - n. facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something

download(ed) - v. to move or copy a file, program, etc. from a usually larger computer system to another computer or device

portable - adj. easy to carry or move around

application(s) - n. a computer program that performs a particular task such as word processing

source(s) - n. someone or something that provides what is wanted or needed

hacker(s) - n. a person who secretly gets access to a computer system in order to get information, cause damage, etc.

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