Science, Tech & Environment

Islamic militants fighting in Iraq help boost the fortunes of FireChat, a new mobile app

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A man speaks on a mobile phone as families fleeing the violence in the Iraqi city of Mosul arrive at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Arbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region June 10, 2014.

Credit:

REUTERS/Stringer

When you are a brand-new tech startup with a cool mobile app, you don't expect early adopters to come from war-torn Iraq. But that's what Micha Benoliel and his colleagues noticed with their app FireChat, released a few months ago.

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Recently, their app was downloaded more than forty thousand times within 10 days in Iraq.

Benoliel is the CEO of Open Garden. And FireChat is an instant messaging app that allows people to text even when there's no cell tower or Internet connection.

The reason behind the spike in FireChat downloads was that Iraq's government was blocking social media sites and, in some places, shutting down the Internet. Benoliel suspects Iraqis were downloading FireChat to get around the obstacles.

Iraq's government says it is trying to interfere with recruiting, coordination and propaganda by the Islamic militant group ISIS, which has been capturing territory in the north and west of Iraq in the last month. 

It turns out that ISIS has a pretty sophisticated social media strategy, which includes an app to spread its tweets and a full-length, online movie. Some analysts believe that their posts showing beheadings helped scare off Iraqi army defenders, while other propaganda helped them boost their reputation and recruit fighters.

So you can imagine that the Iraqi government wanted to stop that. But its actions to block social media, and in some places the entire Net, also meant that normal Iraqis lost their ability to communicate electronically, just at a time that exchanging information was crucial to them.

In walks FireChat.

Founder Benoliel says smart phones have a radio which allows them to connect to a cell tower or Wifi hot spot, but their radios also allow them to connect to each other.

"With FireChat, we exploited a technology called peer-to-peer mesh networking. It means that you can have a smart phone connecting directly to another smart phone to another and basically creating a group of devices that are all connected locally," he says.

In another words, the app enables people to "grow their own Internet."

There are some limitations, though. A FireChat user can only chat with users who have downloaded the app and any two people have to be within about 200 feet of one another. With the mesh network, you can keep growing that line of users, as long as no one is more than 200 feet from someone else in the line.

Thousands of people can be connected this way. And if one person has access to the Internet, then that connection can be shared by all the users.

FireChat is free to download, for now. Benoliel's company hopes to eventually make money by taking a share of ads or online purchases enabled with the app.

When Benoliel and his team set out to create FireChat, they thought it would be used in places where cell and wifi connections drop out, such as in tunnels or at concerts. They didn't envision it being used in Iraq or other places where Internet censorship happens. Firechat has also gained popularity in Iran.

"We are working hard to create a new generation of mobile network that can enable information and communication to flow in places where it couldn't before," he says.

Could the ISIS militants also benefit from FireChat? Sure. Benoliel says he has no information on who is using it. And anything on FireChat can be publically seen by all people in the area with the app.