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Security through Simplicity

People need a mobile phone that is simple, secure, and fun.

Photo of Paul Gardner-Stephen

Written by

Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

The problem is that mobile phones are too complex to be secure, and many vulnerable/marginalised groups have legitimate reasons to expect that the insecurity of these devices may facilitate or encourage their further victimisation. Also, there is a need for mobile phones to be able to work without reliance on cellular or electricity infrastructure to operate. We are solving both of these problems by creating a smart-phone that is designed from the ground up to be radically secure, and so simple that this security can be verified by a determined user, and yet simple and fun to use. The device will double as a hand-held game console which will help facilitate volume of sales, and hence low price, and is completely open-source, creating a platform to facilitate local innovation. It also includes UHF packet radios for peer-to-peer operation (based on our work at, so that it will facilitate local communications even in the absence of cellular service. The hand-held game console form factor also allows for inclusion of a sufficiently large solar panel to allow energy autonomy. The ability to play a large library of historical games also gives the device a reason for even the lowest members of a family heirarchy to have cause to use it, and thus provide them opportunity to communicate with their peers, even where social control constructs would not normally allow this. In short, it will be a retro gaming console / smart-phone, that is designed from the ground up to be fun and functional, and facilitate inclusion by all.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

We know anecdotally that there are many examples of roles within families (such as women and children), and of people groups within wider societies and within dysfunctional or oppressive regimes where there is a need for secure communications on a device that does not immediately attract attention, and for which they have a legitimate cover usage for. To give a concrete example of use, we see young people and women using the device to communicate with one another in a wide range of social settings where this might not normally be possible. The UHF packet radios enable this to occur over potentially a few km distance, allowing isolated and home-bound persons to make use of it. A second use-case would be human rights defenders who need a secure, non-suspicious communications device with a plausible alternative use. A 3rd use case is refugees/displaced persons who need to communicate, but lack access to electricity and/or communications services.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

We know of no other initiative to make an open, transparent and highly secure mobile communications device, especially one that uses the dual-function of games and serious use to create non-suspicious reasons for commercial availability and use by marginalised or vulnerable persons and people groups. Our advantage comes from our combined work on resilient telecommunications (es and retro-computing (eg, making us uniquely placed to fill this gap.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Initial Design: I am exploring the idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

I work as an academic/researcher at Flinders University, Adelaide Australia (, a research-focused University with a strategic focus on resilience and social justice issues.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • No, but we are a formal initiative through a university.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

The initial inspiration came from first-hand stories of oppression and extra-judicial surveillance of people operating in dysfunctional countries, where a variety of prejudices were the underlying cause, with the net effect that these people trying to help their communities were limited in their ability to do so, because they could not communicate safely and securely in the face off their well-resourced adversaries.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Communication among individuals is the foundation of both prosperity and peace. Without communication there can be no commerce (financial or of ideas), and without communications among people of different perspectives, or among people resisting the forces of violence, there can be no peace. Thus we see our idea as a cross-cutting initiative that can be profitable financially, while relieving to some degree one of the underlying causes of inequality and unrest.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We have existing links with human rights defenders through the Open Technology Fund and allies, InterNews/Amnesty International through previous work on the Serval Project, and a variety of NGOs and NGO-like organisations. We will leverage those links to continue to understand needs, and to undertake pilots etc in meaningful contexts. An example of this work would be our pilot of an early version of the Serval Mesh in Nigerian communities who were being threatened with eviction from their ancestoral home:

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

As a cross-cutting globally-applicable project, this is difficult to answer in some regards. However, it is fair to say that globally there is a huge number of young people who have an insatiable appetite for technology, and who can quite naturally lead the adoption of this technology. Similarly, there are many global networks concerned with privacy and security of communications who would lead adoption from a quite different direction.

Geographic Focus

As a cross-cutting initiative it is of global relevance, but with foci in oppressed peoples.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

24 months to create physical prototypes, subject them to independent security review, tool for mass-production and bring the product to global markets. High-income country markets (for the fun and geek attraction of an open, reconfigurable smart-phone) will then provide the cash-flow to continue the work and drive adoption in target vulnerable regions. The global market will help reduce the unit cost, and present non-suspicious use-cases, to help ensure availability in all markets.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Vicky S.

Hello! Your idea sounds very intriguing. Do you believe the government might specifically target these devices if they were to be used by people who opposed the government (protesters, etc.)? If so, would there be a way to auto-delete or block any of the information stored in the devices?

Photo of Paul Gardner-Stephen

It is of course possible that oppressive regimes may eventually target the devices. There are a few ways to reduce the risk. First, because the entire design is open, it would be possible to make versions in different form-factors, so that there is no single common version of the device to target. Second, as you suggest, it would be possible to automatically erase data on a device under certain circumstances. Again, because the design is open, a variety of different approaches could be used that could be device-specific, so that there is no single known trigger that they would try to avoid activating. In short, it is about as good as you can hope for, but of course nothing is perfect.

Photo of Vicky S.

Makes sense! Good luck with your project. Hopefully it catches the eye of a developer or two and they decide to work on it. This device could also be used in other countries where people are civilly active.

Good luck with your initiative!

Photo of Paul Gardner-Stephen


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