Strong, Open, and Usable Encryption: Meet the Next Generation of the Martus Project

By Benetech, posted on

Today, International Human Rights Day, we celebrate the fundamental proposition in the Universal Declaration that human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a global community. This year’s theme, Human Rights 365, encompasses the idea that every day is Human Rights Day. Let us also remember the everyday struggle of millions around the world to protect and advance human rights and civil liberties by promoting transparency, accountability, and justice. These courageous individuals and groups operate in the shadow of active surveillance, state-sponsored harassment, organized crime violence, and targeted computer espionage. Their digital security and physical safety are closely linked, yet all too often they lack the resources or know-how to secure themselves against digital threats.

Web banner for International Human Rights Day 2014.

The Martus Project, an initiative of Benetech’s Human Rights Program, addresses this gap. For over a decade, the Martus Project focused on extending open, secure information management technology to human rights defenders. We now know, however, that rights defenders are no longer the only ones who need tools to protect their information and privacy. At a time when corporate gathering and government interception of information is the norm, it is imperative to protect the growing community involved in human rights documentation and data collection—including journalists, citizen reporters, activists, researchers, and members of civil society organizations.

As technologists, the task before us is to provide these change agents with secure tools that protect their privacy and anonymity, and that empower them to uphold their commitments to do no harm to the vulnerable populations they work with. It is our belief that end-to-end encryption is critical for their safety and success, but we recognize that usability is still a major barrier to its wide adoption.

This International Human Rights Day, we are delighted to announce the release of version 5 of the Martus app and the debut of the updated Martus Project website. With these updates, Benetech is taking a leap towards improving the usability of end-to-end, open source encryption and extending its benefits far beyond the community of traditional rights defenders. This is a major milestone in the evolution of the Martus Project from its roots as a human rights abuse reporting system into a tool for anyone who relies on secure data collection and management.

Bacground image for the hero of the updated Martus.org homepage, showing the Martus desktop and mobile apps.

Recognizing that usability is a security feature, we have made dramatic upgrades to Martus v5 that bring an entirely new user experience. These include:

  • New look and feel: a completely redesigned user interface that features more icons, fewer pop-ups and password checks, clearer indications for required fields, and consolidated, shorter messages to users;
  • Auto-sync of record retrieval from the server: applied to both a user’s and contacts’ records (formerly known as “bulletins”), this improvement allows for faster response times;
  • Improved record format: records have been revamped, with changes including easier-to-use calendar widgets for dates, a “To” field that loads a user’s secure “address book” of contacts, record sections that auto-collapse to lessen the need for scrolling for longer data entry forms, and more;
  • Simple text search on main screen: the addition of this feature directly responds to user requests, while advanced search options will continue to be available;
  • Tor and Server on/off buttons on main screen: these frequently used toggles are now more visible and easily accessed, improving experience for users in locations with limited or expensive internet connectivity;
  • Increased template manager flexibility: users can now load data entry templates outside of the account configuration wizard, and can easily toggle between templates when creating or editing a record;
  • Revision of save paradigm: this updated behavior helps users understand how and for what purpose they save their records.

In order to make it easier for new users to get started and for existing members of the Martus community to get even more out of the Martus app, today we also relaunch Martus.org for the mobile era with an entirely new, modern look and feel. We designed this revamped Martus Project site to offer intuitive navigation and a clean, streamlined interface, so that users can find and access the content they are looking for as quickly as possible. We believe that the new site will provide a far better user experience, and hope that it becomes a strong point of reference in the space of digital security for civil society organizations.

Martus v5 and the updated Martus.org were made possible thanks to funding by the Internet Freedom Programming of the Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Open Technology Fund. We are grateful to our funders for their partnership and support.

This new phase of the Martus Project is a critical step in Benetech’s continuous effort to make strong, open encryption accessible to everyone who needs it, not just the tech savvy.

An infographic showing how the Martus dekstop and mobile apps work.
How Martus Works. Click on the infographic to enlarge.

We are very excited for it, but also recognize that much remains to be done. We are therefore moving forward with the Martus product roadmap and working on the next iteration of Mobile Martus. In addition, with support from the Open Technology Fund, we just launched a new project to embolden organizations and individuals involved in mobile data collection. To that end, we are building a secureApp Generator, which will allow users to create their own branded, powered-by-Martus data collection apps. Our goal is to strengthen the security and safety of those involved in data collection efforts—from relief to research, and from election monitoring in post-conflict countries to eyewitness testimonies in countries with state-sanctioned violence. Stay tuned for our news on this project.

In the meantime, I invite you to explore the Martus Project website and download Martus v5. Your feedback is always appreciated and you are welcome to contact our team at martus@benetech.org.