Encryption software protecting data, lives

Martus: A nonprofit's program aims to give human-rights activists the means to keep safe the digitized details of abuses and the identities of those who report them.

July 01, 2004|By Karl Schoenberger | Karl Schoenberger,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN JOSE, Calif. - A Palo Alto, Calif., entrepreneur has come up with a technological fix for a problem that has dogged human-rights activists in developing countries for years: How do you keep sensitive information from the prying eyes of the authorities who could pose a threat to those offering details of abuse?

Jim Fruchterman, chief executive officer of the nonprofit software firm Benetech, thinks the answer is Martus, a messaging and database product he developed that protects data with sophisticated encryption.

Ever since he read about the cover-up of atrocities during El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s, the Stanford University-trained engineer said he'd been puzzling over how technology could protect witnesses of human-rights abuses.

"Techies like to solve problems, and there's nothing more important than saving lives," said Fruchterman, 45, also known for his work on affordable reading systems for the blind.

Martus was designed for people in developing countries with minimal technology skills, offering greater simplicity than standard encryption programs.

Encryption software protects data by using algorithms to scramble the information into an unreadable code, which can be unlocked only by a specific key, or string of random numbers. The longer the key, the greater the security. Martus eliminates the task of manually inputting these keys. This results in a relative sacrifice in security, but Martus users need only to enter their name and password - the rest is automatic.

After it was tested in Sri Lanka and rolled out in training sessions in the Philippines this year, human-rights workers are giving it a thumbs up. But there are a couple of inevitable shortcomings to the Martus vision: limited access to computers in the Third World, and a lingering mistrust of technology by people who fear it could be used against them.

"We've been branded as socialists and even communists, so we like the security and safety measures in Martus," said Daisy Arago, director of the Center for Trade Unions and Human Rights in Manila.

She has the system installed on three computers in the Manila area. But it will be a while before it can be used by the group's affiliates.

"Most of our members don't have computers," she said. "They use Internet cafes to send us e-mails, and we can't expect the owners to install Martus."

Yet Martus has proven immensely popular since its prototype became available two years ago. Fruchterman said the program is in use in at least 50 countries and estimates the company has handed out about 500 Martus program CDs and that another 500 copies have been downloaded for free at www.martus.org.

"Martus is responding to a real demand," said Patrick Ball, a veteran human-rights investigator and statistician who joined forces with Benetech earlier this year. "People tell me they gather all the data but then they lose it. The paper documents get eaten by termites; floppy disks and hard drives get stolen or confiscated in police raids."

Martus offers three levels of encrypted security depending on how the people intend to share the information. It can be kept secret with access only for the user, or sent to a central office such as the headquarters of a non-governmental organization for analysis and action.

"Convincing people that their information is going to be safe and secure with Martus took a long time," said Tom Parks, an Asia Foundation program officer based in Cambodia who did the project implementation and training in the Philippines. "The trust factor was very important. Previously, this was the kind of information that was so sensitive they didn't write it down. Now we were asking them to type it out on a computer and send to a place they had no control over."

To prevent loss or theft, the data are backed up automatically and redundantly on dedicated Martus servers in Manila, Toronto, Seattle and Budapest. Nobody can read the files without access to the original user's cryptography key and password - with the exception of sophisticated code-cracking organizations.

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