This Woman Is Fighting Extremism In The Most Unusual Way

Photo by Brendan Ballou.
In the U.S., our online freedom is a given. We tweet what we want to tweet, share articles that inspire or frustrate us on Facebook, and read whatever interests us. Elsewhere, internet use is drastically different. "For people in countries like Iran, it can be a matter of life and death," says Yasmin Green.

Green understands the effects of that repression firsthand. She was born in Iran, where the government currently blocks hundreds of the internet's most popular sites. "People in censored societies, like my family in Iran, can only access a fraction of the internet and even that access is under surveillance by the government and is not safe," she explains. "All social media sites, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and independent media such as BBC and New York Times, are blocked."

Green's interests in harnessing the power of the internet developed during her work as a consultant for a strategy and technology firm in the Middle East and Africa. Later, she joined Google, working on sales strategy and operations in those same regions.

Today, Green is the head of research and development at tech incubator Jigsaw, which is housed within Alphabet, Inc., the parent company of Google. She joined the team at its inception five years ago, when it was called Google Ideas, as the head of strategy and operations. Jigsaw's ultimate mission? To find ways to use technology to help a group of people that Green refers to as "users in distress."

"For them, violence, corruption, and censorship are the norm," she explains. "Our audacious goal is to end repressive censorship by going after all the governments and society that repress or censor their populations."
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One way individuals in censored countries can get access to banned sites is through what's known as a proxy, an extension that lets them connect to the internet through another user who has access. The problem with proxies, Green says, is that users don't know who is controlling them. The government sometimes sets up its own proxies to find and arrest users who post to social media or visit restricted sites.

Green, her coworkers at Jigsaw, and developers at the University of Washington found a safe solution that doesn't raise red flags. "We traveled around interviewing people and found that many usually have a network [of people] outside their national firewall," Green says. "So, we asked, 'What if we could create a product that would allow their trusted friends and family to provide a proxy, just to them?'"

uProxy is an easy-to-download Google Chrome and Firefox extension that does just that. Green's cousin in Iran can go to Google Maps through her proxy and see the local café down the road from Green's home in Brooklyn, something that he wouldn't otherwise be able to access. But uProxy isn't available for mass use just yet — if there were missteps with a product like this, it could have grave consequences.

"We have to be really cautious," Green says. "People basically risk their lives to access internet in these places and there are so many examples of people who have used Facebook and have been arrested, tortured, and died."
Photo by Brendan Ballou.
The reason for her concern, and Jigsaw's very existence, points to a larger overarching issue: As the internet has evolved and advanced, it has become a powerful weapon both for and against terrorism. On the one hand, it can enable people like Green to provide freedom to people in censored countries. At the same time, online social networks are a way for terrorists to find and recruit new members.

uProxy will be valuable as an educational tool against terrorism, providing people with access to information about leaving repressed regions and extremist societies. Green led the launch of Against Violent Extremism, the first online network of former violent extremists and survivors of terrorism, and is working on building an even larger online library of defector testimonies.

In a recent trip to the Kurdish region of Iraq, Green spoke with defectors to find out how they were recruited, how they got to combat regions, and what their experiences were like when there. She talked to men who went through two weeks of religious indoctrination, followed by three weeks of military training, to prepare them for roles as guards and suicide bombers.

Green hopes to make these stories available to anyone who is experiencing similar issues. "The thing that I think is misunderstood is that there are a lot of people [who are part of the Islamic state] who want to leave, but they don't know how," Green says. "I don't think there's enough insight at the moment about the path in [to extremist societies] and the path out."

There are a lot of people who want to leave, but they don't know how.

While many of Green's interviews take place in Iraq and Iran, one memorable discussion occurred with a 13-year-old girl in England who attempted to leave home and join the Islamic State group. The girl was stopped before leaving, but a major question remained: How does a 13-year-old from Birmingham, England, a large city known for its lively arts and food scene, get drawn to a region where women are persecuted and freedoms are heavily restricted?

"One thing that stuck in my head was that she thought she was going to the Islamic Disneyland," Green says. "She had seen ISIS trending on social media, engaged with a few people, and was convinced to try to go."

What makes social media so powerful? "The sense of community," Green says. "Now that we have online communities, it’s much easier for people to feel like they're a part of something that is much bigger."

It is because of this connection that technology is also one of our most powerful counterterrorism tools. Green sees phone apps as one the most viable ways to reach and dissuade possible recruits, since the Middle East is one of the world's largest mobile phone markets.

"It used to be that one person would create something and everyone had to consume that one thing," she says. "Now, anyone can shoot something, share it, and it can go viral."

Finding a way to use that power for good is where the real challenge — and potential — lies.

"I grew up in a Middle Eastern family where we talked about politics and how it changes lives," Green says. "Addressing geosocial challenges became my passion. Being able to use technology [to do that] feels so hopeful and scaleable."

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This article originally published April 25, 2016.
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