1 March, 2016
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.
However, they remain at risk from digital attack – since the uprising, at least 77 Bahraini human rights defenders have had their computers and
Unfortunately, incidents like these are becoming increasingly commonplace,
To fill that gap, Oak made a grant to Citizen Lab, a research group at the Munk School of Global Affairs
It is thanks to its work that the breach of the Bahraini activists’ computer systems was identified. Citizen Lab published a report
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
“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
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
Gathering witness statements through technology
- 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.
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
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.