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Advancing Privacy, Security and the Open Web: The Impact of the Open Technology Fund

"There are around 2 billion people regularly using OTF-supported technologies right now to circumvent online censorship and surveillance."

Esra'a Al Shafei
6 min read
Advancing Privacy, Security and the Open Web: The Impact of the Open Technology Fund

Open technologies, privacy, and security tools play a crucial role in protecting digital freedoms. Enabling individuals to navigate the internet securely and privately helps uphold the fundamental rights of expression and access to information in an increasingly surveilled and censored world.

In recognition of an organization with proven impact in this field, we're excited to feature the work of the Open Tech Fund (OTF) which champions the cause of unrestricted access to the internet as a human right, especially for the many activists, journalists, and marginalized communities who rely on the internet to connect, learn, and mobilize for change. By prioritizing the needs of those most at risk of censorship and surveillance, OTF ensures that its efforts have a meaningful impact on the ground, empowering individuals to push back against repression and to cultivate open, inclusive societies.

In our exclusive interview, we feature Ramy Raoof, a distinguished member of the OTF team. Ramy, a seasoned technologist and privacy and digital security researcher, has earned recognition for his profound contributions to the open and free web, notably being honored with Access Now’s "Heroes of Human Rights and Communications Surveillance" award. His commendable efforts have exposed the extent and impact of invasive surveillance techniques targeting vulnerable users. Learn more about OTF and what Ramy aims to achieve in his role there in this exclusive interview.

How does OTF actively contribute to the advancement of global internet freedom?

OTF supports the research, development, implementation, and maintenance of open source technologies that counter authoritarian censorship and combat repressive surveillance so that everyone can exercise their fundamental human rights online.

OTF staff are closely connected to global intersecting communities working against repressive censorship and surveillance. These communities are made up of individuals from all walks of life, and from all around the world. They are human rights defenders, journalists, software developers, designers and activists dedicated to creating better futures, and recognize that a free and open internet is fundamental to their goals. They both inform our work and we prioritize supporting them. We recognize the importance and challenge of creating an environment where all voices feel valued, included, and empowered to bring their perspectives to the table in the pursuit of internet freedom.

Our contributions are defined and inspired by the communities we care about. As a funder, we have a variety of ways – both direct investments and service support – to address emerging and existing challenges. We also continue to monitor evolving challenges and under-supported issues that we may be positioned to support.

What role does OTF play in leveraging open source solutions to enhance privacy and digital security for users worldwide?

We believe free and open source technologies allow for an iterative development process, transparent security, and privacy for users. In our experience, we also know that open source tools are more trusted by the communities who need them most. The open source way is ultimately the best way to set people up for a secure private online experience, which serves internet freedom communities in repressive environments.

Apps and tools serving internet freedom communities and high-risks users are expected to align with privacy-preserving and software health practices that allow for transparency, iterative and inclusive collaboration, and strong privacy policies. For this to happen open sourcing becomes a digital hygiene practice: it builds trust and allows others to view the code, copy it, learn from it, alter it, or share it. The qualities of being free and open are essential for social justice and are gateways for all communities to flourish.

How does OTF's services and resources, like the Secure Usability Lab and Red Team Lab, impact the reach and effectiveness of internet freedom tools and projects?

Open source software projects - apps, tools, libraries, scripts – help people around the world safely and privately communicate. This is especially important for journalists, activists, and people living in closed spaces.

However, many software projects need enormous assistance to make tools that are truly usable, accessible, and secure for a variety of political contexts and diverse communities. Without these qualities, we see slow adoption of technologies and an increasing gap between software developers and users. Additionally, misunderstandings of tools and apps functionalities can potentially lead to a false sense of privacy and security that puts users at harm.

In the last ten years, we have seen both increased adoption of digital security and circumvention tools around the globe, and a greater commitment to usability and security best practices within major and relatively well-resourced tools. This is heartening.

Yet, over the last decade, we have learned some important lessons which informs OTF’s approach today:

  • We value the expertise within internet freedom communities to inform our support resources;
  • As an organization, we continue to learn from previous iterations;
  • Privacy-preserving user research is an important prerequisite for usability, security, and the health of any open source software project.

Currently we have a number of labs that help provide services to OTF-supported projects as well as internet freedom apps & tools to enhance their security, usability, and other qualities that may contribute to wide-scale adoption. For example our Secure Usability & Accessibility Lab is an amazing resource for those who are keen on improving their adoption rate by focusing on creating a more stable design; undergoing usability audits; integrating inclusive feedback loops with users; solidifying branding and visual identity; and addressing neurodiversity challenges in the context of design.

We also have our Red Team Lab which is a great resource for open source apps and tools in the internet freedom space to get security audits, architecture improvements, and reverse engineering and penetration testing to improve the quality of their software and safety framework. Additional labs support communications needs and knowledge sharing among the internet freedom community; and technology localization for diverse linguistic, social, and political environments.

What is your view on decentralized protocols and their impact on privacy, interoperability and censorship resistance? What are some of the projects and apps that OTF has supported in recent years.

OTF believes in the importance of critical infrastructure protocols and public interest technologies that pave the way for important and needed properties such as message confidentiality, message integrity and authentication, membership authentication, asynchronicity, forward secrecy, post-compromise security, and scalability.

We are proud supporters of many open source technologies from their inception to ideation, from early development to sustainability and longevity. A few examples of our supported projects, all publicly available on our website, over the past decade:

Wire Guard, Signal Protocol, Tor Project ecosystem, OpenMLS, OONI, OpenVPN, Mailvelope, Reproducible Builds, PiRogue Tool Suite, Mobile Surveillance Monitor, Global Surveillance Tracker, NoScript, QubesOS, Tails OS, Subgraph OS, Global Leaks.

There are around 2 billion people regularly using OTF-supported technologies right now to circumvent online censorship and surveillance and increase their digital security. They include people from all walks of life ~ for example:

  • Netizens leaping over China’s Great Firewall.
  • Activists avoiding repressive surveillance in Iran.
  • Protesters circumventing internet shutdowns in Turkey.
  • Journalists staying safe online in Russia.

Do you have any concern regarding global policies and regulations that seek to compromise end-to-end encryption and other privacy enhancing technologies?

Our modern communication and the internet as we know it today has advanced so much with regards to safety and privacy, largely attributable to open source communities and efforts to build safe infrastructure for all. At the same time, authoritarians globally are increasingly aggressive in fueling digital attacks, censorship, and surveillance. In response, we are seeing global efforts and initiatives at mass scale to bring end-to-end encryption into every aspect of our lives. An important part of these efforts is to encourage all tech giants and systems to talk to each other.

I am from Egypt and close to different communities in North Africa, Western Asia, and Central America. My experience and those of these communities made me realize more and more the importance of privacy as a core enabler for organizing, achieving change, and that it is fundamental for effective autonomy and governance. The security threats and privacy challenges facing all communities worldwide must be addressed strategically with innovative solutions that dissolve limitations –without compromising essential values. Challenges at both the technological and political levels are very dynamic and fluid, making it even more crucial to push strongly for a more privacy-conscious ecosystem.

We are only safe from repression when the most vulnerable are safe from repression.

Uniting for a Free and Open Internet

At XMTP Labs, we see OTF's work as part of an ongoing collective mission to protect digital rights and privacy in the face of worldwide surveillance efforts and policies that undermine encryption and the availability of privacy tools. Resourcing, contributing to and supporting an open web with privacy at its heart will remain a core principle at XMTP Labs.

AdvocacyPrivacy & Security