Sicurezza

How Zello Became a Lifeline for Venezuelans Under Maduro

Even when María sleeps, she hears the voices.

One at a time, they speak of chaos, hunger, confusion. As she dreams, she hears a familiar voice explain where you can still find certain medicines. This is the latest news from the US, says another. Run, run south right now, someone warns as calmly as they can. As María makes lunch for her kids and drops them off at their school in Miami, the voices are in her ear. As she falls asleep next to her husband at night, they’re there.

The voices are those of Venezuelans, as well as of those among the Venezuelan diaspora, who for years have been engulfed by political and economic crisis under the country’s authoritarian leader, Nicolas Maduro. Thousands of them come together in Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos (Venezuela to the Marrow, or to the Bone), a channel María runs on the popular voice-chat app Zello. As the Latin American country descends further into turmoil, her channel has become an essential lifeline for people in the country where María was born and raised, and where she still has family. To protect her identity, WIRED is using only her first name.

María learned about Zello in 2014, when the app first emerged as a crucial tool for Venezuelans protesting widespread hunger and political oppression under Maduro’s regime. She was already living in the US, and relied on the app to find out what was happening back home. She created Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos later that year. “Ever since, I have been on the app pretty much 24 hours a day,” she says. She takes out her earphones to shower, and that’s about it. “Always at least I am hearing. Sometimes I’m speaking.”

Like a walkie-talkie, Zello allows one person to talk at a time, whether in private chats or on public channels that can function like CB radio. The way Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos is configured, only the moderators can speak; anyone else listening to the channel can ask them for permission to talk. Aside from María, Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos has a dozen moderators. They take shifts so that the channel has someone speaking and listening to subscriber requests 24 hours a day. While sometimes the moderators let people speak directly on the channel, other times they pass on requests or questions or tidbits of information they receive from users, like radio hosts reading listener mail.

“People will come to our channel and say to us, ‘I desperately need these pills for my mom,’” María says. The moderators will put that plea out on the channel, and then hopefully someone else will privately tell them they have it. “Then we will arrange for them to get it, and we make it so these people never actually need to meet each other.”

Venezuelans face an overwhelming shortage of medicine; in 2017, the country’s pharmaceutical federation estimated 85 percent of medication needs were being unmet. While the Maduro government has refused foreign aid from a number of countries, including the US, Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos moderators have helped people find food and medical supplies, like hearing aids. They have warned people to keep their kids home from school on days when listeners report that the government is arresting people on the street.

“People will come to our channel and say to us, ‘I desperately need these pills for my mom.’”

María, Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos

People also tune in for access to news that isn’t controlled by Maduro, which María and the moderators read aloud throughout the day. “There is no true media down there,” she says. “Everything has been bought by the government and they broadcast whatever the government wants them to broadcast. So the people in Venezuela have no access to the truth, to what’s going on even in their own state.” Reporters Without Borders ranked Venezuela 143rd out of 180 countries in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Economic and political pressures have forced many independent outlets to shut down. When the country’s largest remaining antigovernment newspaper shuttered last year, its journalists said the government had made it impossible to get enough paper to print.

Venezuelans turn to Zello, according to María, to fill the gaps. Since January 23, when opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the rightful president of Venezuela, downloads of the app inside the country have increased 135 percent, Zello says. Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos has more than 71,000 subscribers; Zello reports it is the largest channel there.

Bill Moore, the CEO of Zello, says he’s very conscious of the role his app plays in situations like those in Venezuela. The Austin-based company was founded in 2012 on the idea that the human voice is the best, simplest, and most direct way to convey information, and that the internet could make push-to-talk communication more accessible. Over the years, the truth of that premise has often shown up during times of crisis. “Our voice instantly carries a huge amount of information,” Moore adds. “Particularly when stakes are high and when there’s an emergency, you can organize a lot of people at once using your voice.”

Today, Zello has 133 million registered users around the world. Most of them use the app for free; the company makes its money from a paid service, ZelloWork, used by businesses such as trucking and construction companies. The app does require an internet or cellular data connection, but because it is built to have a small data load—no videos or large files can be shared on the channels, and only one voice speaking at once—it can often work even with a poor connection, when other apps and services might not load.

“Particularly when stakes are high and when there’s an emergency, you can organize a lot of people at once using your voice.”

Bill Moore, Zello CEO

Zello has been been a popular app during hurricanes and other natural disasters. It briefly topped Apple’s App Store charts in the US as Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida in 2017. After a devastating earthquake in Mexico that same year, rescue workers relied on Zello to coordinate operations.

What’s more, Zello has a number of other features that make it attractive for organizers like María. Any voice data shared in private channels or directly between two users is end-to-end encrypted, as is text information. Though the app requires people to give a username and email at sign-up, it does not require those to be real names. And the app keeps no logs of the voice or text data that is sent over its lines, public or private.

Anyone can tune into public channels like Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos, which makes it useful for reaching large audiences—but it also means government officials can listen in too. Anonymity on Zello is crucial. The Maduro government can and does listen, according to María and Zello junior data analyst Alejandra García Buenaventura, who has worked with María and her channel to ensure people can safely use the app.

“The moderators have gotten really good at not using private information,” García says. “When you go to the channel, they are not giving any clues of where they are.”

García has taken the lead in studying how Venezuelans and other at-risk communities use Zello and making sure Zello’s 40-person staff in Austin is maximizing their support. “We consistently contact moderators, saying here are best practices,” says Moore. When the company sees hot spots in disaster zones—political, environmental, or otherwise—they reach out to see how to make the app work best for the circumstances.

Sometimes that support is as simple as passing on best practices for maintaining anonymity, or getting in touch with aid groups when Zello hears reports that donations have been hijacked before they could be delivered, according to Moore. But the most important way Zello supports politically oppressed people is by making sure Zello is available at all—a lesson it learned in 2014.

Back then, as the Venezuelan government saw people flock to Zello to share information and help coordinate the riots and protests that were erupting, they blocked the app. “The government-controlled service providers were ordered to block Zello,” says Moore. “But they did that in a relatively crude way—by blocking IP addresses.” The company responded by IP hopping, essentially changing Zello’s IP address to a new one every time it got blocked. “We had very good help from the tech community within Venezuela,” the CEO adds. Quickly, Zello created a program that would automatically detect when an IP address was blocked and immediately switch to another.

The IP-hopping program would come in handy. In 2017, Russia told Zello it would need to register with the government to operate in the country legally. “Essentially they said ‘Make all this communication available for our use,’ and we said ‘Sorry, of course we can’t do that,’” recalls Moore, saying that because the app was encrypted, it was technically impossible to turn over everything that Russia wanted anyway. At that point, Russia began blocking Zello’s IP addresses, and Zello started hopping.

Though this kept Zello available in the country, it caused all sorts of problems for the IP hosting services Zello used, chief among them Amazon Web Services. Since Zello wasn’t the only service using certain IP addresses, when the Russian government blocked Zello, it blocked other, unrelated AWS customers too. As Zello hopped and more addresses got blocked, more services using AWS were taken offline. Amazon told Zello to knock it off.

“Amazon came back to us and said that it was against their policy,” Moore says. “Our argument to them was that Amazon was a tool of the Russian government, who was using Amazon to censor their people.” Amazon did not agree, according to the Zello CEO, and argued that it had no political agenda but needed activity that was hurting its other customers to stop. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.) Moore found the response was similar at other hosting services Zello could switch to, such as Google; Zello still uses AWS today.

Privacy advocates have criticized the role internet infrastructure firms can play in government censorship. “When the profitable answer is for a software giant to acquiesce to censors’ demands, how long can internet freedom last?” wrote Bruce Schneier after Russia pulled the same thing with encrypted messaging app Telegram one year later.

Moore says that neither the Russian nor the Venezuelan government blocks Zello’s IP addresses anymore, but isn’t sure why: “[The Russians] sort of forgot about us and so Zello continues to operate there.” But the company still recommends people use a VPN to access it. That’s what people in Venezuela do, according to María, since Zello is blocked in app stores there. Venezuelans hear about Zello and her channel through word of mouth, and also from social media; the channel has Twitter, Instagram, and SoundCloud accounts.

Like any communication platform, Zello can be used for better or for worse. As WIRED reported last year, the app has taken heat for a more hands-off approach toward terrorist groups like ISIS. At the time, Moore admitted that the company needed to do a better job. Since then, Zello removed its trending channels portal, which Moore acknowledges had encouraged bad behavior, turning Zello into a sort of “CB radio Twitter,” as he put it. Zello has also joined the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube formed in 2017. In addition, the company has committed to the Tech Against Terrorism pledge, created by the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee to help smaller tech companies counter extremism on their platforms.

But if terrorists represent the worst of what can be done on an app like Zello, María and her fellow Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos moderators represent the best.

It hasn’t been easy. María’s dedication to Venezuela, and to providing information and support to the people there through Zello, comes at a personal price. She has a family and a full-time job, though she can thankfully work from home. “It has been an issue for my marriage,” María notes. Her husband, who is from the US, at first objected to how much time she spent devoted to the channel. It was like part of her was always somewhere else, somewhere falling apart. He asked her to stop, or at least cut down. “I remember crying and telling my husband, ‘You don’t understand how I feel that I can help a little bit my family and my people. This is important to me. Don’t make me not do this,’” she says.

María and her team hear all the time from Venezuelans telling them that without Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos they’d be in darkness. “Sometimes I felt so overwhelmed and I felt like we are never going to get out of this and I want to quit,” she admits. “And then I think about the people of the channel who will not get news or hope if I stop and I truly feel that I have a responsibility.”


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