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Published: October 14, 2015

Security in your pocket: ‘Umbrella’ a one-stop-shop

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Holly Kilroy is Co-Founder and head of Organisational Development at Security First. She previously worked as the Emerging Powers Coordinator at Crisis Action where she launched and led the emerging powers program. Prior to this she helped set up Videre, framing the need for safer, more effective video documentation. 


Technology is transforming the way civil society thinks, operates and interacts. It is also transforming the way civil society is targeted. The current security landscape places attackers at the advantagemonitoring tools and repressive physical security methods have dramatically dropped in price/effort and increased in their widespread use. The first widely publicised examples of digital surveillance of civil society were in the early 2000’s with China’s targeting of the Tibetan movementa trend that has since been seen worldwide, in large part due to the availability of off-the-shelf surveillance tools from companies such as ‘Hacking Team‘.

Knowing how to operate securely in an operational environment that is increasingly dominated by a myriad of communications technologies is not an aspirational ideal, but a requisite. Even if humanitarian organisations rely mostly on the acceptance by the communities to deliver aid, agencies need to be able to operate and communicate with their staff and implementing partners without the fear of surveillance or putting staff and partners at unnecessary risk.

Humanitarian workers are operating with little digital protection and too often are unprepared to use technology as a means to mitigate their physical risks. While there are a number of digital tools and technology-based resources for the security of humanitarian workers, collectively, they face a number of problems. These digital resources are often:

  1. Dispersed: It is difficult to keep on top of all the various tools available and to know what to use when.
  2. Complex: Many of the digital security tools are designed for users who are adept at IT.
  3. Inaccessible: Resources available only on websites or in PDFs often remain inaccessible to those who actually need them while working in the field without data. These tools can be of difficult access by humanitarian workers accessing the Internet primarily via mobile devices.

Existing solutions also fail to address digital and physical security holistically. They focus on either digital or physical security, but fail to link them together in a cohesive strategy. In order to address these problems and better secure humanitarian workers, the process needs to be simplified. Aid agencies need a user-friendly, easily accessible tool that delivers simple answers on how to operate safely in any situation.

This is precisely what the Umbrella app aims to provide. Umbrella is a mobile phone application that provides humanitarian workers with all the latest tools and advice on how to operate securely in a range of scenarios. The app, launched earlier this month, has been developed by Security First as part of mounting efforts to make it easier for aid workers to work safely. Instead of having to get back to the office and dig out a quickly out-dated security manual when facing a security problem, aid workers can now quickly and easily refer to what’s in their pocket.

‘Managing the safety of staff and collaborators in insecure environments, across multiple locations and facing an array of threats can be challenging’, said Matt Timblin, Director of Security at Human Rights Watch. ‘The prospect of an easily accessible “one stop shop” app, such as Umbrella, that allows quick access to security advice is an exciting and innovative development in helping improve the security of those working as human rights activists and humanitarians around the world.’

More about Umbrella

Umbrella’s content has been sourced from best practice security manuals and digital security guides (see sources below), and provides practical advice for everythingfrom how to make a secure phone call or protect files, to travel preparation or what to do in case of kidnapping. The app is free, open-source, and has cleared a security code-auditit doesn’t track users’ location or take any personal data on them.

The app features the following commands:

  • Lessons give simple step-by-step actions of what to do in any given security situation, and show the best tools for it.
  • Levels (beginner, advanced and expert) allow the user to choose her/his level of ability and also get answers that reflect the level of risk or the type of protection needed.
  • Tools recommended in the lessons can be tricky, so a guide gives step-by-step help on how to set up and use the tools suggested.
  • Checklists help mark the user’s progress and share with colleagues what actions have been implemented or have yet to be done.
  • A dashboard provides real-time updates on possible security threats, and alerts the user if there is anything in the vicinity that she/he should be aware of. The app pulls data from sources such as the United Nations, Reliefweb, Center for Disease Control, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and US State Department; raising awareness to the user of everything from physical security risks like protests or kidnappings, to environmental or health security risks like floods or disease outbreaks.

Once the app is downloaded it can be used without data – the only feature that needs Internet access is the dashboard. While Umbrella is currently available only on Android, there are plans to develop an iPhone and desktop version, and localise it by country. Security First can also provide the option of a white-label version of the app, so that an organisation could brand and tailor the content as appropriate.




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