A new academic paper from University of California, Santa Barbara is quite unique in that the product is a mobile app for political dissidents. Researchers Michael Nekrasov, Danny Iland, Miriam Metzger, Lisa Parks and Elizabeth Belding describe their new app in a paper titled “A user-driven free speech application for anonymous and verified online, public group discourse” published by the Journal of Internet Services and Applications. An article at Science Daily commented:
Minority and dissident communities face a perplexing challenge in countries with authoritarian governments. They need to remain anonymous to avoid persecution, but also must establish a trustworthy identity in their communications. An interdisciplinary group of researchers at UC Santa Barbara has designed an application to meet both of these requirements.
Computer science and communication researchers affiliated with the university’s Center for Information Technology & Society traveled to three countries to assess the challenges minority groups face in maintaining a secure, trustworthy social media presence. Based on the communities’ feedback, the team designed an app for the Android operating system that would safeguard group members’ anonymity as well as verify the reliability of posts coming from the group.
In this paper we explore the design process of SecurePost, a novel tool that allows verified group anonymity to those communicating publicly on online social networks. We present survey-based research and ethnographic interviews of communities vulnerable to censorship conducted in Zambia, Turkey, and Mongolia between 2013 to 2016. We use analysis of this data to ground our work. We explore needs and requirements of users such as modes of censorship, resistance to network disruption, and appropriate platform consideration. We outline our technological solution and expand on how on-the-ground research of user communities guides technological requirements.