Sunday, July 24, 2005

How to Start a Revolution with SMS

Ukraine's Orange Revolution was an excellent example of how a large and sufficiently dedicated group of people can, without the use of violence, force political change. The Orange Revolution, like most revolutions associated with mass protests, had an identifiable cause: popular unrest at the notion that the incumbent party had contrived to steal the presidential election.

Being a revolutionary in a repressive state is tough work: leaders with the charisma, motivation, and following to become opponents of the ruling party inevitably attract the attention of the state as soon as, if not before, they become popular with the population at large. It is tough to maintain cohesion within an opposition movement, or to trust collaborators to follow through when the time for action (even peaceful action) nears. For these reasons, oppressive governments have persisted even as their ability to censor information effectively has vanished with the advent of the internet and anonymizing technologies like Tor (which I am using to post this entry!)

Another technology poses a much greater threat to tyrannical regimes, however. Cell phone use has become ubiquitous in newly developed countries. In China it has leapfrogged landline telephony as a means to connect the population without requiring the extensive investment associated with conventional telephone networks. Some economists have argued that the spread of cell phone technology will be the single greatest factor in increasing the standard of living in developing countries.

Consider the following scenario, however:

A committed group of tech-savvy Zimbabwean expatriates decides it can no longer watch as President Mugabe's regime bulldozes slums. The bulldozing program constitutes an atrocity, certainly - but there is no single act that can get the population out of their houses and onto the streets in the way the stolen election motivated the Orange Revolution Ukrainians. So these tech-savvy expatriates elect to invent one. Large crowds, they know, have a psychology all their own - ask anyone who has ever been involved in a soccer riot. Even without a specific casus belli, they know that if they can get enough people out on the streets, the chanting and jeering will start and the closing bell will have tolled for the Mugabe regime.

As Paris Hilton discovered, cell phone networks are far from impregnable to electronic attack. The Expats hack into the phone records of Zimbabwe's cell phone companies, and download all the phone records from Harare, the capital. This is where they get clever. They crunch the data to establish social networks from the call logs. If I call 555-5555 three times a day, an observer can assume that the number belongs to a friend or family member of mine. I probably have him in my address book. We'll call him John. When the analysis is complete, the Expats write a script to send one of a couple of dozen possible messages to each of the people I call frequently, all of them ostensibly sent from my number. The text differs slightly (and would be contrived so that no single person got the same message from two different people), but the essence is "come quick - there's a rally to oppose mugabe" or simply "you'll never believe this - come to XXX square, quick." With the messages staggered somewhat so that the rate seems natural, the following occurs:

Seeing a plausible and interesting text message coming from my number, John decides to call me and find out what's going on. Because everyone in Harare has just had this same idea, the cell phone network is busy. Perhaps our Expats have had an additional hand in this. Aware that heavy call volume can cause cell networks to go down, John decides to see what's going on, and starts to leave his house - indeed, he sees people marching toward the square even now.

Inevitably, some people will get a message from someone who is 1. physically present next to them or 2. someone from whom such a suggestion could not plausibly have come (say, a cautious mother). Even in these cases, the people who are taken in, and who begin streaming toward the centers of power, will constitute a pretty strong indication that something is Really Going On.

The trick to all this is that, unlike a traditional flashpoint, this one will come without warning. By the time the ruling party realizes it has an angry mob on its hands, the mob will number in the hundreds of thousands, and mobilizing troops or police to stop them will be impossible. Unlike an organic revolution, this revolution will involve no inside conspiracy to be infiltrated by spies or to be nipped in the bud at the first sign of unrest. It will happen so quickly that government-controlled media will be too late to broadcast warnings against it, and it will all be over by the time anyone - even the protestors themselves - understands what's happening. And I rather think it will happen bloodlessly.

What's more, it all rests on a technology no modern government can deny its citizens. Even Syria is seeing skyrocketing cell phone use among its population; governments that don't allow their citizens to go wireless risk lagging even further behind economically (which is unacceptable, because governments must consider outside threats as much as inside ones.)

Of course, this scenario is not in the least limited to Zimbabwe - any country with an unpopular and undemocratic government, and a wired (well, wireless) and youthful population will be equally susceptible. Nor do the hackers involved have to be expats. Hacktivism has a short but storied history, and while socially motivated hackers have never pulled off a revolution, they have accomplished feats that require no more technical skill than this would involve. The revolutionary heroes of the next wave of democratization may remain forever anonymous, having planned, organized, and executed a revolution in Harare or Tehran, from the comfort of their homes in Moscow, Madrid or Skokie -- or from their offices in the Pentagon. After all -- the idea of starting a revolution by SMS isn't exactly a secret.

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