The Big Idea: Should the U.S. 'airdrop' millions of phones into Syria?
This photo, of a rally in Syria in April, was shot with a mobile phone.
May 29th, 2012
10:25 AM ET

The Big Idea: Should the U.S. 'airdrop' millions of phones into Syria?

By John D. Sutter, CNN

(CNN) - Can communication tools stop a war?

That's basically the idea one CNN commenter put forward on Monday. Responding to a story about citizen journalists in Syria, who risk their lives to upload videos and photos of gruesome massacres by the government, a commenter called goingmeta had this to say:

Rather than bombing by air or invading by land or even sending in international observers, we should airdrop about 20 million video cell phones. If there are excesses and abuses, nothing would turn the tide so quickly as giving each man, woman, and child in Syria the opportunity to record them and hold the authorities accountable for their actions.

This kind of thing isn't completely without precedent. In Sudan's Nuba Mountains, as The New York Times reports, an American named Ryan Boyette has been working to arm locals not with weapons but with tools that will help them make digital recordings when bombs fall on the caves in their territory. The Times' Nicholas Kristof writes:

Ryan organized a network of 15 people to gather information and take photos and videos, documenting atrocities. He used a solar-powered laptop and a satellite phone to transmit them to the West, typically to the Enough Project, a Washington-based anti-genocide organization. He also supplied eyewitness interviews that helped the Enough Project and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative find evidence of atrocities, including eight mass graves, on satellite images. And he helped journalists understand what was going on.

The Enough Project's Satellite Sentinel Project, referenced above, also aims to monitor tank movements on the ground in Sudan, hopefully to give warning before an attack on a particular region.

All of this is relatively small-scale stuff compared to the "20 million video cell phones" suggested by the commenter, but it's still one unique example of many. There are efforts all over the world, including those from iReport, CNN's user-submitted news site, to help people document their own lives and submit that news to global media organizations.

One commenter, however, sees limits in this appraoch. It's not a shortage of technology that fuels war, the person writes:

Hold the authorities accountable? How cute. And what about when the authorities then massacre them and their families for daring to speak up? Cellphones and communication are all well and good, but unless they have a means to defend themselves then they're as good as dead.

As this article shows, there is no shortage of cellphones or brave citizen journalists in Syria. Yet as long as we refuse to arm them or even acknowledge their right to fight back, then all they'll ever do is record one grisly massacre after another.

What do you think? Are cell phones a valuable form of international conflict mitigation? Or is that view naive? Let us know in the comments section below. We may pull some of the most interesting thoughts into this post.

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Filed under: Crowdsourcing • Innovation • Internet • Smartphones • Social change
soundoff (377 Responses)
  1. In home Personal Training

    Simple Answer, Yes! We need to get the story out.

    April 6, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Reply
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  7. Ryan

    I hate to point out the obvious, but to everyone who says the US and other Western forces should intervene with their military, all that would happen is Afgahnistan all over again? We'll go in there, blow up everything we see, kill half the bad guys and half the good guy, then withdraw and leave the country without a stable government, military or infrsturcture, and leave them even more screwed than before.

    July 5, 2012 at 10:50 am | Reply
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    June 11, 2012 at 7:22 am | Reply
  9. Frock

    The government will get these cell phones, place charges in some that will detonate once you press the button to turn them on. word of this will spread, and the people will not touch them. More fear based control, straight out of the Iranian playbook.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  10. halit özcan

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    June 3, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  11. h

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    June 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  12. haze hoffa

    first of all don't the tailban use cell phones to let off ied's? Also won't it hurt getting hit in the head with a cell phone falling from the sky? am just saying am not the smarts guy in the world but am just saying

    June 2, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Reply
  13. Hutchenson

    The idea of communication is a good one, but cell phones have inherent problems (power supplies, networks, reception) that could outweigh the positives. Why not drop walkie-talkies down? Let them communicate, give them the means to scan for government channels, give the people a chance to know what is happening. One of the greatest tools the Syrian government is using now is fear. If the people could build their own infrastructure of communication, they might well be able to begin fighting back.

    We need to do so much more to stop these atrocities, yes. We have a moral imperative to help those who are being abused. But guns aren't the only way battles are won. Let's make sure the Syrian people have the resources they need to protect themselves, and let's start with the ability to communicate.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
    • Robin Rochelle

      I agree with you 100%. The US with its satellite capabilities and communications expertise has been missing the boat in providing direct support for various people based revolutions over the last 20 years. Rather than the billions on weapons and survellience of the CIA and their poor performance, it we really supported democracy, we will be assisting with broadcasting what is transpiring.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  14. Jim

    SIlly idea.
    They'd have to be Sat phones to be worth the trip. (otherwise the gov't would immediately block the signal transmission)
    That's alot of expensive electronics.

    May 31, 2012 at 8:07 am | Reply
  15. tdsii

    Ok, so we drop cellphones, and they record one massacre after another. Then what? Has the government been held accountable to what we've seen already?

    May 31, 2012 at 4:49 am | Reply
  16. shagpal

    yeah, like phones can just get reception thru verizon or att no problem there. what serious idiots we have in our media, and even more gullible readers.

    May 31, 2012 at 2:26 am | Reply
  17. xwindowsjunkie

    Air dropping cell phones or sat phones is a stupid idea. There is no infrastructure to support either system. There aren't enough places with power to charge the phones. After the first week, the phones will all be inert. Assad will just have the power cut to an area, wait a few days and then roll in the tanks. Even now some of the cell phones have been recording the genocide, and the world and the UN have sat on their butts. Besides I'm sure the Russians or the Chinese have already offered to sell him jamming equipment.

    May 31, 2012 at 2:05 am | Reply
  18. Dorn Hetzel

    Maybe what's needed for these sorts of situations is a peer-to-peer "cellphone" which uses wifi, bluetooth, and any other available communications channels to forward texts and video to neighboring phones which then forward it on, etc, freeing them from the need for most cellular towers. The user of each cellphone could let stuff forward first come first served or decide what to forward and what to dump, so it would work a lot like social networks, but without actually using the Internet, per se. Then when a message or video reaches some phone which *does* have an outward connection, it can make it out to the rest of the world, or even if a phone which has received something is then physically transported to someplace with a network connection, it can upload it. A small percentage of these phone with working satellite links would help.

    May 30, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  19. ALLEN

    I'm a US taxpayer, and I'm sick and tired of being expected to provide financial support to the rest of the world!

    May 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
    • Risky

      in part:Cellphones have eclipsed cetmupors, both desktop and laptop, as the most promising technology in emerging economies such as India, China and Africa, something that MILLEE embraced from its founding in 2004. In 2007, Businessweek writer Bruce Nussbaum reported that the One Laptop Per Child initiative should, after much fanfare, be called a failure, “Cell phones are far more popular as the means to connect to the net in much of the Third World,” wrote Nussbaum, “and cellphone-type devices rather than cute little laptops might have made much more sense.”

      July 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  20. Daniel

    If genocide was being committed in the US would Syria airdrop phones for us?

    May 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
    • caw

      If stupidity existed in the US would...oh never mind.

      May 31, 2012 at 8:22 am | Reply
      • Daniel

        Unfortunately, due to people like you, it's seems like its running rampant.

        May 31, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  21. goingmeta

    Let's not get ahead of ourselves in the race to military intervention. The massacre rumors have been horrendous, and thousands have died over the last year.

    But make no mistake. If we intervene with our military, we won't be handing out daisies. We'll go in with guns and guided missiles. We'll blow the crap out of their entire infrastructure. A whole lot more people will die, perhaps tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands.

    And when its all done, there's no guarantee that we'll leave the country in a better state than its in right now.

    May 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  22. Jack

    20 million cell Phones? Your assuming that the people there know how to use them. Your assuming that there are radio towers that can transmit and receive the signals from the phones. Your assuming that the phones would have chargers with them with the correct voltage. Your assuming the people would know where to send the information. Is this really an idea?

    May 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Reply
    • Nate2.0

      Give humans some credit. We built the pyramids and the great wall. I think we can handle figuring out a cell phone.

      June 5, 2012 at 1:15 am | Reply
      • Mark

        To be fair, the pyramids weren't Bluetooth-enabled, and I don't think the Great Wall can pick up wi-fi.

        June 6, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
      • Andrew

        I think cell phones pose a pnitoetally serious problem for schools. With camera phones and instant messaging, academic integrity becomes an issue. In addition, I have read about horror stories in which (usually) young ladies are photograghed in the locker room or rest room while changing clothes and then the pictures are shared with the world. In some instances, the student is emotionally traumatized and can ruin a high school career. We must do everything we can to pretect our students from this. I think our current policy of keeping cell phones turned off and in the student's locker is the safest bet for all involved and strict enforcement and consequences must maintained by the entire school.Andy Goodwin

        July 21, 2012 at 3:33 am |
  23. Don

    How do you stop the cellphones from falling into the government's hands?

    May 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
    • TWM

      Really??? Do you think that 20 Million phones will be that easy for the Syrian govt to get ahold of all at once. I'm sure we have enough intel to know a few covert agents that have ties to the people that they could get them in without issues. Now, if the Syrian govt were to get their hands on any major number of them in the beginning, then we would know which batch and make those unusable by cutting the service to those. Don't let an enemy use your own weapon against you. Disable it! If its on a individual basis of the Syrian govt getting the phones by confiscating them from citizens or it happens over time, then there is nothing we can do. It would be frivilous to pursue action on only a few phones at a time.

      May 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply
    • goingmeta

      If it was done as part of the UN observer program, Syria's compliance could be mandatory. They would not be allowed to intercept the "observer phones" and any attempt to persecute people with an observer phone would presumably be recorded or reported in other ways.

      May 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • hank thomas

      won't have to worry if the phones are on the AT&T network

      May 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  24. Dangerbird

    !Warning" Texting while running from tanks is not recommended! Additional data charges may apply.

    May 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  25. drewstone

    well i guess we found a solution of what to do with the $1Billion worth of RIM devices!!!!

    May 30, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
    • TWM

      Blackberry and Palm both paved the way for all of these other "smart phones" back in the day. Show some respect. If it keeps them in business by doing so, then they should send their phones over there. Liquidate enough inventory to support this and charge it to the UN or use it as a tax write off. Blackberry would be the only phones to be able to take that kind of punishment. IPhone's screens crack and scratch too easy...they are junk. Android phones...well, they are user friendly if you like to tweet or get on facebook. At least with BB you still have a touch screen, a seperate functioning keyboard from the touch screen, and trackball/trackpad. Redundancy at its best. If it breaks one way there are still more ways to communicate...and in the Syrian peoples interest that would be best.

      May 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Reply
      • g

        noooo blackberry reliability is horrible.

        May 31, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  26. Chris

    I agree with the earlier comment, concerning the proposed "cell phone drop" – Yes, the more reports that come in, the better, but if they can't defend themselves, then they will all soon be extinct – ARM THEM – GIVE THEM THE DIGNITY

    May 30, 2012 at 9:19 am | Reply
    • Mike

      Aren't we in massive amounts of debt? Who's going to pay for the cell phones or weapons? I don't recall anyone supplying the American militia with arms when we declared out independence. Let them get weapons on their own, so they can stand on their own. No sense getting them used to handouts already.

      May 30, 2012 at 9:25 am | Reply
      • toosilly

        France assisted the American Revolution. Granted the huge cost of the war did a number on the French economy and ran up its debt...

        May 30, 2012 at 10:03 am |
      • RGG

        France, The Netherlands, Russia (Catherine the Great secretly) all helped extensively. Loans, massive weapons sales, gunpowder, outright donations, ships, and soldiers on the ground all helped the 13 American Colonies gain their independence. Read your high school history book.

        May 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
      • Sarge

        wow, mike! you hit it right on, brother. let the little people throw stones if they want to be free!!!!!!! who cares if they are going up against rocket launchers, grenades, tanks and automatic weapons.

        if they want to be free, they will throw that stone and stand proudly against the wall awaitin' their execution.

        by the way, if you did not catch the sarcasm, then you are a double idiot.


        May 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
      • Jim

        Without France the US would have been throwing rocks at the English

        May 31, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Sarge

      chris, chris, chris. don't be silly. don't you see that if we give them these phones we are supporters of the people. how else could we generate "a million" news stories without having to pay a "real reporter"? think how much we could save.

      then when the indignant syrian government slays those civlian (i.e. unpaid reporters) we generate more news to air and our ratings go up.

      you just don't see the big picture.


      May 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  27. FauxNews

    I doubt this will catch the CIA impersonationg Syrian troops.

    May 30, 2012 at 8:08 am | Reply
    • Henri

      Iphones only!!

      May 30, 2012 at 8:50 am | Reply
  28. Marc

    Whether we help them or not they'll hate us for it anyway so why waste our soldiers and money on it? Let the REST of the UN nations decide to do something without the US leading it, then we can send a few soldiers. We shouldn't bother with the middle east anymore. No soldiers, no weapons, no aid, no food... Nothing.

    May 30, 2012 at 6:03 am | Reply
    • Mario

      Agree completely, can't we stop policing the world? It's about time we worry about ourselves and stop worrying about the middle east. The middle east will never have peace, and all they'll do is continue to fight. They've been doing it that way for thousands of years, just let them kill eachother, why should we care?

      May 30, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply
      • Sarahy

        Cris,A agree with you there. However, banning cell phnoes does not mean that students will actually stop bringing them to class and to school. Cells are here to stay, so we might as well use them to our benefit too.I've heard about cell phone's role in fights, however, I don't think that the solution to large fights, or fighting can come from limiting specific behaviors. I often wonder why we have such large secondary schools. Kids get lost in the mix, and relationships that matter are hard to foster. My graduating class was 640 students, and the school I'm currently at has about 60 this year in our 12th grade. In total our k-12 school has about 750 students. No I know that I'm at an international private school in Europe, and that is very different than the US is. However, I think that schools that look more like mine could become more common in the US given some effort. We would see a huge drop in violence and, I believe from what I've read, a higher GPA and lower drop out rates

        August 22, 2012 at 4:18 am |
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