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This Kit Gives Protesters Weapons for Anonymity & Encryption

New York-based designers Xuedi Chen and Pedro Oliveira have created a kit of wearables for civil unrest.
All images by Roy Rochlin, courtesy of the artists

Imagine if a hip fashion or tech company were in the business of designing privacy and encryption-enhancing wearables. This is sort of the notion behind Backslash, a kit of “functional devices designed for protests and riots of the future.”

Conceived by Brooklyn-based designer and educator Xuedi Chen and Brazilian art director and interactive designer Pedro G. C. Oliveira, the Backslash kit features everything from smart bandanas that feature embedded messages to a mobile “panic button.” Backslash was inspired, as Chen tells The Creators Project, by a range from recent protests, including the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Gezi Park, the Egyptian revolution and others.


The smart bandana, for instance, was inspired by the tactic of protesters to wear bandanas to mask their identity. More specifically, it was inspired by the patterns found in the kaffiyeh, a traditional headdress worn in the Middle East, which Chen and Oliveira see as a strong symbol of activism. They also chose the kaffiyeh because it is able to be folded in many ways, providing a number of configurations, allowing people to “unlock” different messages.

“When it comes to idea of embedding messages, we were thinking about ways to transmit a message without other people knowing anything was being transmitted, kind hiding in plain sight,” Chen says. “People in the know would be able to decipher a message on site in a protest, or halfway across the globe through a photo.”

Instead of embedding a message directly in the pattern, Chen and Oliveira thought about the bandana as an extra level of authentication, a hash to unlock a message. No actual content is embedded in the pattern itself—it functions more like a public key. (In electronic communications, if two people exchange messages, they send messages via a public key—scrambled gibberish, basically—that can only be unlocked with a private key.)

“This, as well as the other devices, is just a prototype, a concept,” Chen says. “But in a near future we thought people would be able to generate this using a software and print stencils, make screen prints, or in some communities maybe even weave them.”


The Panic Button

The "panic button" wearable is a response to a common police practice called “bottlenecking.” In a protest, police will occasionally close off side streets and funnel people into a closed-off space where they can be beaten or arrested. So Chen and Oliveira imagined a device that could notify people of a safer route before they enter a police bottleneck.

The two developed the hardware and software from scratch, focusing on a device that is not dependent on pairing with a smartphone or the cell network infrastructure. Chen says the devices themselves construct their own network. They also built in some redundancies (duplicate channels) in case authorities block a communication channel.

The Backslash kit also features a router inspired by mesh networks, ad hoc networks created when routers communicate with one another over wifi or bluetooth radio waves.

The Router

“Most mesh network solutions out there was more focused on software,” Chen says. “So we instead wanted to experiment with hardware, making something that was battery-operated, built for fast deployment and emergency situations. We also experimented with including a crypto-chip that can be used for VPN connection and tunneling.”

The Drive is a personal black box that allows people to upload videos, photos, and other information to an encrypted cloud. This wearable is a response to the confiscation of laptops and cameras in the last days of the occupation of Zuccotti Park. It also grew out of the law enforcement tactics against protesters in Brazil, which include breaking protesters and bystanders’ cameras.


The Drive personal black box

“In keeping with the idea of a black box of an aircraft, we built a device to keep a record,” Chen says. “Each one of these black box devices creates a hotspot that can allow up to 30 people to upload their photos. It strips all photos of metadata so all of it is anonymous, so it allows safe upload later on and doesn’t incriminate any person.”

The kit’s Stencil works with the same technology as the bandana, but for a different situation. Inspired by the old practice of “warchalking”—marking down wifi hotspots in urban environments—the Stencil allows protesters to spray stencils on a particular corner of a street to alert people to areas of high surveillance, or if they need to turn off their phones because of stingrays in use. (Stingrays allow authorities to mimic a cell phone tower, forcing nearby communications onto it for surveillance purposes.)

The Stencil

The Jammer is a short-range personal jammer that could hang on a necklace or keychain. It allows the user to block all outside communications to a phone while still allowing them to access their camera and features without worrying about personal information—such as location and time data—being collected and used against them. Chen and Oliveira created it because switching a phone to airplane mode does not guarantee that all of a phone’s radios are offline and not transmitting, as some beacon modes can be triggered due to factory loaded settings.


Chen insists that there is no political agenda behind Backslash. In fact, the two don’t even have one. They just want to clarify that technology at protest sites and riots is much more than chat apps and social media.

The Jammer. Image by Roy Rochlin, courtesy of the artists

“We think that is a huge disparity between the amount of technologies used by the authorities and the technologies available to protesters,” Chen says. “The greatest number of less-lethal weapons and tear gas ever used against civilians were seen during the protests in Turkey. The biggest supplier of tear gas and pepper spray is a factory in Rio, Brazil.”

“This is a great example how the world is connected. We think that is important to spark this conversation, and Backslash is an excuse to do that.”

Click here for more information on Backslash.


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