Tech and Human Rights: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

March 19, 2015

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As someone whose job it is to take advantage of technological progress for human rights research and advocacy, I am a strong proponent of using new tools and methods to advance Amnesty International’s goals. There is a proven track record of how technology can help human rights researchers and defenders in their daily work. However, any debate on this topic should not overlook the increasing challenges and threats that new technologies and digital networks pose for our profession. I am increasingly interested in exploring this undeniable tension, and I am fortunate enough to moderate a panel related to this topic Amnesty International USA’s Annual General Meeting in Brooklyn this weekend (full details below).

I have written extensively about added value of technology in support of human rights work, both on this blog and on other sites. To highlight some of the upsides:

  • Digital social networks can help facilitate mobilization and activism, as we have seen in protests from Cairo to Ferguson. As I have pointed out previously, information is increasingly distributed less through official media outlets, such as TV broadcasts and newspapers, and more through online social networks in real-time, thus—more than ever—putting reporting on human rights abuses beyond the control of governments.
  • Satellite imagery can give us access to dangerous conflict zones and isolated prison camps
  • Mobile apps can help to provide added protection for frontline human rights defenders
  • Interactive maps can tell the story war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as unlawful attacks against civilians in Al-Raqqa, Syria

This list could go on much longer and is by no means comprehensive (and I encourage you to share your own examples in the comment section).

Empowered with these new tools, we have to think increasingly about associated risks and ethical considerations, so we do not end up doing more harm than good. There are also downsides to new apps, tools and cameras everywhere. To name just one example, we have to think critically of how we share and integrate citizen evidence in the form of YouTube videos that show human rights violations, in order to protect survivors’ privacy and not re-victimize them. Prominent examples (via our colleagues from WITNESS) stem from Russia and Egypt, related to bullying and sexual assault.

And then there is the ugly side of advances in technology, most notably in the form of mass surveillance. AIUSA’s expert on this topic has written extensively on this topic on this blog, highlighting especially the regrettable US leadership in this regard and putting it in the context of a vaguely defined “global war“.

Related, I want to highlight three challenges that affect human rights activists in the digital age:

  • Targeted computer espionage attacks: In November 2014, Citizen Lab published a report entitled, Communities @ Risk: Targeted Digital Threats Against Civil Society, to identify the types of digital attacks affecting human rights and other civil society organizations. The study was conducted over a four-year period, with the participation of ten civil society organizations. It highlights how the persistent and evolving nature of targeted digital threats clearly undermines the security and sustainability of the organizations’ operations. Especially as civil society organizations are far less equipped to confront digital attacks and secure themselves than national governments and the private sector.
  • The global proliferation and export of surveillance software: Digital security and cryptography expert Bruce Schneier points out that “Many countries buy software from private companies to facilitate their hacking.” Some of the companies that develop and sell surveillance software, including to countries with very poor human rights records, are based in in the European Union or the U.S. Unfortunately, there are currently only insufficient safeguards to protect against the sale of surveillance software and equipment. The Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports (CAUSE), which includes Amnesty International, is an international initiative to prevent the export of surveillance technologies.
  • Government attempts to block or discourage the use of encryption: Although encryption and anonymity tools would make it safer for human rights organizations to operate and conduct their work online, government agencies within the U.S. and the UK have criticized service providers Google and Apple for announcing that data stored on their mobile devices would be encrypted by default.

Engaging in Digital Human Rights Activism
I hope to see some of you at Sunday’s panel, where we’ll discuss a few of these topics in more detail. I am especially excited to moderate a panel that includes speakers with very diverse backgrounds and expertise in activism, research and policy, which I am sure will guarantee a fantastic debate.


Panel: Engaging in Digital Human Rights Activism
Sunday, March 22, 11am-12:30pm
Amnesty International USA AGM, Brooklyn NY

Dante Berry, Executive Director of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice
Adrian Shahbaz, Research Analyst on Internet Freedom and Digital Rights at Freedom House
Natalie Green, International Policy Assistant at Public Knowledge

Amnesty International USA member Melanie Penagos contributed to this post.

Featured graphic via Digital Rights Monitor. Background image courtesy of FDR Library and Museum (CC BY 2.0 License).