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How a clunky GPS bracelet could help thwart human-rights abuse
A group called Civil Rights Defenders has turned the ankle monitoring bracelet into a potential lifeline for at-risk activists
The wristband can be activated manually or automatically.
The wristband can be activated manually or automatically. YouTube
W

e don't usually think of GPS-enabled ankle bracelets as a way to thwart the police. But a Swedish human-rights group is refashioning the technology into a "potentially life-saving personal alarm" for activists and organizers in countries where the police are not big on human rights.

Stockholm's Civil Rights Defenders handed out the first five of the group's new durable, high-tech bracelets last week, and hopes to outfit another 50 human-rights workers over the next 18 months, based on fundraising success. The bracelets are equipped with GPS and a cell phone module. If the bracelets are forcibly removed when activated, they will send an alert to the Civil Rights Defenders, nearby colleagues and allies, and anyone following the project on Twitter or Facebook saying who is in trouble and where. (Watch the video below for more information.)

How will that save the bracelet-wearer? Civil Right Defenders calls the bracelets the Natalia Project, after Chechen human rights leader Natalia Estemirova, who was kidnapped and murdered in 2009 while documenting abuses by government-backed militias. "This devastating loss of life could have been prevented had the correct authorities been made aware as soon as she had been kidnapped," the group says in a press release.

With the capability to alert the world in an instant, the Natalia Project will apply pressure on the attackers. The fact that the whole world will immediately be aware of an attack forms a virtual, defensive perimeter around human-rights defenders, who are at risk, as these regimes want to avoid international attention and criticism. [CRD]

"It's a life-tracking device that could very well live up to its name," says Elizabeth F. Ralph at Foreign Policy. When human-rights activists are "disappeared," publicity is often the only thing that can keep them alive, and time and information are their lifelines. But the Natalia Project bracelets aren't foolproof. Any group committed to killing a civil-rights activist might not hesitate to immediately kill instead of kidnap its target, or cut off the activist's hand or foot to remove the bracelet, and it seems plausible that a GPS-enabled device could be used to track a worker by a government agency or well-equipped militia.

Still, the bracelets are probably a huge improvement over what many human-rights activists have now — very little. "An army of human-rights defenders are risking their lives to protect the freedoms of others, but who is defending them?" asks Rebecca Grant at VentureBeat. And incorporating potentially millions of people through social media is a smart innovation. Besides, war zones like the North Caucuses aren't the only place where civil rights activists are in confrontation with security forces.

"During widely covered protests like Occupy Wall Street, law-enforcement agencies around the U.S. showed off various new, tech-powered methods of dealing with crowds engaged in civil disobedience," notes Adario Strange at DVICE. Groups like Civil Rights Defenders remind us that technology, the great equalizer, can be harnessed by the other side, too.

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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