The ability of Flinders research fellow Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen’s Serval software to maintain secure phone communications has won a US$10,000 award in the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention.
Run by NGO Humanity United and the US government aid organisation USAID, the Challenge offers prizes to problem-solvers who develop concept papers or prototype technologies that help to identify or deter third-party enablers of atrocities.
The Serval Project was a winner in the Communications category.
“The basic idea of the Challenge is to stop atrocities happening, not just in the wake of disasters but in a variety of contexts, and this particular challenge was about providing secure communications during a crisis,” Dr Gardner-Stephen said.
“Lack of communications makes it problematic for people to defend themselves and keep organised.”
Dr Gardner-Stephen said that the Serval applications, which enable mobile phones to connect directly with each other without using phone towers, contain inbuilt end-to-end encryption.
“Communication methods such as two-way radio allow the bad guys to listen in, whereas our system makes it more difficult for militia or criminal gangs to intercept people’s communications as they attempt to organise and defend their communities,” he said.
Dr Gardner-Stephen was inspired to develop the secure features in the wake of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, which saw numerous incidents of rape and other violence.
“Once people can organise their defence, it suddenly becomes much harder for these atrocities to be committed, and much easier for the people committing them to be apprehended.”
An experimental version of the Serval Mesh software can be downloaded for free from servalproject.org or from the Google Play store.