In Which Google Latitude Inspires Panic Over a Refugee

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In Which Google Latitude Inspires Panic Over a Refugee In Which Google Latitude Inspires Panic Over a Refugee
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In Which Google Latitude Inspires Panic Over a Refugee

by Brian Merchant

April 1, 2010
Here's a problem I bet nobody had when they were trying to spring their friend from a refugee camp 20 years ago: suddenly discovering that he was in the middle of hostile territory-and risking his life-by happening to check Google one evening.

On my iGoogle homepage, next to my email inbox, calendar, and weather gadgets, I'd set up Google Latitude to beam in Samy's location onto a small map. (Samy's idea.) Usually, the information it provides isn't exactly revelatory: Given his circumstances, it marks Samy's location as being either in the Mae La refugee camp or Mae Sot, where he sometimes works. When it's glitchy, it will place him somewhere in the Indian Ocean, but that's about it.

Tonight, however, as the Latitude gadget loaded up I noticed it showed the little "Samy" cursor smack in the middle of Bangkok. I was stunned, and immediately assumed something had gone wrong. Samy isn't legally allowed anywhere outside of the refugee camp, though the authorities turn a blind eye to his working in Mae Sot. If he's caught by Thai authorities without documents anywhere else, he faces deportation to Burma, and then, potentially, death at the hands of the military for a crime he didn't commit. I refreshed the page.

The only other time Samy had been to Bangkok was right after he made it across the border into Thailand for the first time. He and a few friends were hoping that the U.N. in Bangkok would be able to help them get out of the country, so they snuck around the many Thai checkpoints and made their way by foot to the Thai capital, over 150 miles away. They had decided to walk through the jungle, determining that a ragtag group of young foreign-looking men strolling down the side of the highway would be a quick way to raise eyebrows.

Once there, they had to lay low in a friend of a friend's flat, scared out of their minds that the Thai police or the immigration authorities would find them and send them back to Burma. And then, after a few fruitless days-the U.N. couldn't help them-they turned around and did it all over again in order to get back.

When the page reloaded, sure enough, Latitude still showed Samy in Bangkok. If this wasn't a glitch, I figured he either had a damn good reason to be there or the authorities had brought him there, and either way, he was at significant risk. After a few minutes of anxious deliberation, I called him up and he answered almost immediately. He already knew what I was calling about. The first thing he did was apologize for not emailing me first to let me know that he had taken off. I didn't really know how to respond to that.

"Everyone is shocked that I just came here," he says, explaining that he hadn't even had time to notify his friends back in Mae Sot either. It turns out that he had caught the eye of an aid group in Mae Sot, while the group was trying to help a Nepalese refugee that had somehow ended up in Thailand. They had become interested in Samy's story after they saw him talking with the man. Did I not mention that Samy speaks Nepalese?

The group invited Samy to Bangkok, where their headquarters is located, to see if they could help him out. So it turns out they had arranged his safe passage to the city, and he was staying with friends. Still risky to be sure, but Samy was relatively safe.

Soon after we spoke, the surreality hit me: I was worried about my refugee friend, who's in the process of trying to escape persecution from a military regime in a developing country, because a digital indicator notified me that he wasn't in his refugee camp.

This hyper-connectivity had the effect of putting me in a position where I felt as involved in the events unfolding as I would had I lived two blocks away from Samy-checking the two mostly likely places he would be, not finding him, and panicking-despite the fact that I'm 8,000 miles away.
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