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Technology and human rights

International Human Rights Programme / Partner story

Photo: © Eric Pedicelli / Chopshop Media
Photo caption: Staff at work at Citizen Lab, and organisation that researches, monitors and analyses the exercise of political power in cyberspace

The way that people communicate and access information has been transformed over the last half-century. These technological advances have empowered those defending human rights. However, they have also aided their adversaries, and human rights defenders are increasingly vulnerable to online surveillance and hacking, as governments and private actors restrict access to certain information.

“In international law, access to information and free expression have found tremendous accelerators in the internet and other forms of digital communication. At the same time, efforts to control speech and information are also accelerating.”

Carole Bogart, Human Rights Watch

Protecting human rights defenders and enabling their work, including through harnessing the benefits of modern technology, are some of Oak’s key priorities. Oak developed a cluster of grants within its International Human Rights Programme in 2015 to both realise the potential of technology and also to mitigate attendant risks.

Grants covered three main areas:

  • digital security;
  • developing anti-impunity tools and technologies; and
  • technological capacity-building.

Digital security

Since the Bahraini uprising in 2011, local authorities have been using excessive force and unlawful detention to muzzle pro-democracy activists. Many activists have had to flee the country. In exile and in relative safety, they continue their work to bring about democratic reform.

However, they remain at risk from digital attack – since the uprising, at least 77 Bahraini human rights defenders have had their computers and mobile devices hacked, presumably by a hostile government. Hackers gained access to information saved on the activists’ computers’ hard drives, monitored Skype calls, chats, file transfers and videos, read emails and recorded conversations.

Unfortunately, incidents like these are becoming increasingly commonplace, threatening both the work and lives of human rights defenders. There is a lack of research and tools to help groups quantify and mitigate such risks.

To fill that gap, Oak made a grant to Citizen Lab, a research group at the Munk School of Global Affairs in the University of Toronto. Citizen Lab is working to detect covert hacking and surveillance tools that are directed against human rights groups.

It is thanks to its work that the breach of the Bahraini activists’ computer systems was identified. Citizen Lab published a report that linked this attack (and others) to a UK-based commercial company which sells Trojan spyware to governments, ostensibly in the fight against organised crime. However in some countries, such tools have been used in ways other than what they were intended for: to surveil and endanger human rights defenders.

Citizen Lab’s analysis helped strengthen campaigns and litigation against companies that have sold surveillance systems to countries that have used the tools in this way. In addition, Privacy International’s campaign resulted in controls on the export of such technologies from the UK.

Citizen Lab forms part of a new cohort of grantees, which – though not all focused on security – should improve security practices among nongovernmental organisations. Grantees including Tactical Technology Collective work with activists to ensure that online activities and data storage do not place organisations or the victims they work with, at risk.

“Through your computer, mobile phone and other digital devices, you leave behind hundreds of digital traces every day,” said Stephanie Hankey, Co-Founder of Tactical Technology Collective. “These bits of information are created, collected and stored. Then they can be put together to create stories about you or profiles of you. While these can give others a huge insight into your life, they can also give a totally wrong impression.”

Through a range of resources, including its flagship Security-in-a-Box toolkit, Tactical Technology Collective provides group training to reduce the risk associated with these digital traces.

Developing anti-impunity tools

Documenting police brutality in Brazil According to Amnesty International, the police in Brazil are estimated to be responsible for around 2,000 deaths every year. Many of these deaths are undocumented, and the families of the victims often never learn of what happened to their son or daughter. Oak grantee WITNESS has helped train activists to use mobile video devices to capture human rights violations when they occur. It has also empowered communities to stand up against police brutality. “With the rise in the use of mobile phones and social media, there is an increasing flood of videos that human rights groups hope will support criminal investigations and proceedings,” said Executive Director of WITNESS, Yvette Alberdingk Thijm. “We believe that if we train activists and citizens to capture better quality videos, international human rights and criminal justice stakeholders will be able to use them to better effect,” she said.

“What WITNESS does is create, support and sustain a global network of people who use video as their tool, as their weapon. This network reminds us that we are not a single voice; we are not alone.”- Esra’a Al Shafei, Bahraini activist

WITNESS is one of several of Oak grantees that work with activists to develop and disseminate new technologies to capture evidence of crimes. New kinds of evidence, like video and satellite imagery, are becoming increasingly important in the investigation and prosecution of international crimes.

A recent example is the case of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – prosecution rested almost exclusively on the tracking of the defendants’ cell phones.

Gathering witness statements through technology

Unlocking the wealth of potential evidence gathered by witnesses through statements – in person, on social media and through mobile phone recordings; and corroborating this evidence to make it admissible in court, is a challenge. In 2015 Oak supported three interventions to make this happen:

  • Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Rights Center is pioneering the development of advanced computing methods and tools to analyse large volumes of photographic and video evidence;
  • UC Berkley’s Human Rights Center works with the International Criminal Court, investigators and technology companies to ensure the use of evidence gathered through technological means in proceedings; and
  • SITU Research applies spatial analysis and visualisation techniques to present evidence more effectively.

In a separate but related grant, the American Association for the Advancement of Science deployed geospatial technology to document international crimes from space.

Capacity building

Maintaining a well-functioning and up-to-date IT system is critical to the effectiveness of any organisation. In 2015 Oak invested in a range of interventions to build grantees’ technological capacity. This included an extensive programme of training built on face-to-face, individualised, user-led approaches. Oak also supported sustainable IT programmes that were integrated into the regular day-to-day operations of the grantees.

The work of HURIDOCS and Beneficient Technology’s Human Rights Programme (Benetech) was critical to these efforts. HURIDOCS worked closely with organisations to examine their information and management systems over a number of years.

Benetech has developed a secure, encrypted database which permits human rights groups working in high threat situations to store information safely. It has accompanied grantees to the field to train staff on how to operate and customise this valuable tool.

Looking to the future

In the context of an increasingly difficult environment for activists and human rights defenders around the world, the International Human Rights Programme will continue its work. This includes protecting the fundamental rights of the individual, supporting those who champion that struggle and ensuring that perpetrators of gross abuses are held to account.

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report 2015