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Dr. P. Rai Menges Volunteers to Protect Researchers in Dangerous Conditions

Don’t use Gmail. Don’t keep recordings on your cell phone. In fact, if you’re in a foreign country, leave your cell phone behind and buy a burner phone at a market instead.

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Dr. P. Rai Menges. Courtesy of Dr. P. Rai Menges.

These are a few examples of advice operational security expert Dr. P. Rai Menges gives to human rights groups, nonprofits and non-governmental organizations working with refugees and other vulnerable populations all over the world to protect them from hackers and electronic surveillance.

“I probably annoy a lot of people because I tell them not to use their devices until they have an understanding of them,” Menges says. “It’s not a game — it really isn’t — and we’re talking about life and death here.”

Menges, a rocket scientist, joined AAAS’ On-call Scientists program five years ago after responding to a request for online scientists, thinking she’d be focusing on aerospace and energy issues. She was surprised when it was her operational security chops that were most requested by the nonprofits she volunteered for.

Menges’ operational security expertise comes from years of experience and training — some from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other labs, some from doctoral training and from working in secure database development and developing intelligence databases through her company, Aerospace Research Systems.

With degrees in mathematics, biomathematics and a doctorate in aerospace engineering and high-energy physics, Menges offers a range of scientific knowledge and expertise to  AAAS’ On-call Scientists program, which connects scientists, engineers and health professionals to United Nations field offices and human rights institutions all over the world. The scientific advice and technical support are free, supported by AAAS and its scientist volunteers.

This is how the service works: Someone at a human rights group has a question. They visit the program’s website and either send an email to oncall@aaas.org or call Theresa Harris, project director of AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program — Harris also manages the On-call Scientists program. The team goes through its network and an available, knowledgeable person answers the question, via phone or email.  

Menges is one of more than 1,200 volunteers in 65 countries that handles such requests, and she mostly works with non-government organizations focused on preserving human rights who are concerned about security in their operations, for example Doctors Without Borders personnel.

When she’s called on, she’s primarily trying to help people determine whether their operations are secure or if they know how to protect their operations from hackers and electronic surveillance.

For example, when one group wanted to create a smartphone app to collect human rights violations, she told them to be careful because smartphones and apps aren’t secure. People using them can get arrested for being spies, she says.

“It’s a major concern for me that a lot of these nonprofits working across foreign frontiers are going to get themselves in trouble,” Menges says. “Any technology that you use can be used against you — just because someone’s telling you your phone’s secure or the application’s secure doesn’t mean it’s secure.”

She encourages her clients to develop an eidetic or photographic memory to create a visual in your mind of facilities and the people who are there, instead of using an app to record the same information.

For example, if you’re trying to determine whether refugees have access to clean water, look at a refugee camp’s infrastructure, including pipes, faucets and filtration units.

“You can learn categories of special techniques to actually identify what’s in a room who’s in a room how the facility’s laid out,” Menges says.

Menges is equipped to provide this expert advice because she has a 20-year history of working in the engineering sector, corporate management and research. She founded Aerospace Research Systems in 1993 to support her doctoral research. She launched it as a collaborative network and its spin-off companies include the Star Sailor Group, Star Sailor Energy and two subsidiaries. The Star Sailor Group is known for creating advanced technologies in energy storage, including vertical axis wind turbines, which adapt to the environment to create energy efficiency.

She’s also a flight-test engineer and commercial pilot, and she’s working on a book on space systems management for Springer. Her interest in data security came in the 1990s, when she was in graduate school and researching aerospace systems.

“I realized if we couldn’t protect our data … any of our adversaries could use our data against us,” Menges says.

The reason Menges signed up for the On-call Scientists service in the first place and stuck with it came out of a sense of duty to help others.

“It’s a responsibility for scientists because most of us have been working with someone in their career who escaped one regime and made it to the United States that saved their lives and allowed them to be scientists,” Menges said, citing Albert Einstein as an example. “We believe it is part of our responsibility as scientists to contribute to the issues of human rights and social responsibility and it is a fundamental concern for most of us.”

The younger generation of budding scientists should remember that, and should look to give back, she says.

“Science has a unique capability, opportunity and responsibility for improving the world and a lot of times, you don’t have to volunteer across the planet,” Menges says. “You can start in your own community.”

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Lenore T. Adkins