Zello App Gains Popularity With World's Protesters

Linda Wertheimer talks to Patrick Tucker, the technology editor for Defense One, about Zello — a walkie-talkie app. That app is becoming a key tool for protesters in Ukraine and Venezuela.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

From Caracas to Kiev, protesters are organizing with the help of a social media tool called Zello. The walkie-talkie-like app allows smartphone users to send short voice messages from person to person or to a small group of people. And one key factor that's making Zello the go-to app among protesters, anonymity, something they don't get from Facebook or Twitter.

BILL MOORE: We've had multiple requests from authorities for information. And one way to solve it, in fact the way we solve is we just don't, we don't retain information.

WERTHEIMER: That's Zello's CEO, Bill Moore. He says over the past two weeks, Zello has been the number one overall app in Venezuela and Ukraine - more popular than any other.

We wanted to find out why, so we called on Patrick Tucker. He's the technology editor for the online magazine Defense One. Welcome to our program.

PATRICK TUCKER: Thank you so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So why are we seeing this app adopted by two mass movements in two different parts of the world?

TUCKER: Well, if you talk to Bill Moore and people that are using the app, they'll tell you a couple of different things. The anonymity piece is a big part of it. Another big aspect of it is that it works well in places where it's hard to get her to get a Wi-Fi connection.

WERTHEIMER: How is it being used? Is it being used in the same way that folks in the Tahrir Square in Cairo used Twitter?

TUCKER: It's a little bit different . It basically functions, in many ways, like ham radio or a telephone depending on how you set it. So it's being used in Venezuela right now to organize lots of people coming out into the streets for these protests. It's also used by smaller groups to organize very specific either evasive maneuvers or setting up barricades to do sort of thwart the national guard.

WERTHEIMER: Is it all different, Venezuela from Ukraine?

TUCKER: So one key difference is that, in Ukraine, there was no attempt to block the use of the Zello app. And much of the attention has centered around the fact that there was an active government attempt to censor the app. And that's what really began to inflame the international software community, sort of the international hacker community. And next thing you know, you had other services - other software developers chime in and say: Well, we've created this solution that helps people that want to download this app, get around the government blockade.

WERTHEIMER: Are these companies actually trying to attract protesters?

TUCKER: The company heads that I've spoken to about this have said that what they really want to do is create a service that's useful to people - and useful enough that at some point folks decide to pay them for it. They want to sell this stuff to businesses. They want to make money.

Then stuff like this happens and they have a decision to make: Are you going to throw in, with your users - the people that have downloaded your app, who are essentially customers even if they're not paying, even if they're using a free version - or do you turn around and say no, this is not something we're very interested in getting involved in. And that decision-making changes a lot depending on what's going on on the ground.

You know, Bill Moore will tell you that his main priority right now is just to make sure that everyone who wants to use its app can continue to do so in a free and open way. And that means that more protesters will use it to take to the streets and government sympathetic militias might use it, as well, to goal and attempt to target of harass protesters. All of these uses are open through the app.

The technology itself is benign. And he simply says that it's really everybody's right to access it.

WERTHEIMER: Patrick Tucker is technology editor for the online journal Defense One. His new book, "The Naked Future: What Happens In A World That Anticipates Your Every Move," is in stores this week.

Thank you very much.

TUCKER: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

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