The double face of technology for Human Rights Defenders

November 13, 2013

Technology is becoming increasingly important in documenting and preventing human rights abuses. But emerging technologies can also pose a threat to human rights defenders. Two pieces on AI’s blog demonstrate that:

On 11 November Tanya O’Carroll, Technology & Human Rights Project Officer, and Danna Ingleton, Individuals & Communities at Risk Research & Policy Advisor, blogged under the title: “An Invisible Threat: How Technology Can Hurt Human Rights Defenders“while Sami Goswami used the headline: “How Technology Is Helping Us Better Protect Human Rights”. 

The piece focusing on the negative aspects says inter alia: At the Front Line Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders this year one striking theme was in relation to how technology (phones, computers, cameras, social media, software, and the list goes on) has become deeply entwined with the work of defenders and the types of threats that they face. The post explores some of those stories and asks questions about how we can support a safer environment for HRDs in their use of tech.

Finding creative ways to access information in the face of censorship and surveillance is a routine task. And the problem of security is daunting: how can HRDs protect themselves when the threat is invisible? This combines with a feeling of powerlessness often leads to extreme fear and paranoia. The threat from your attackers is with you everywhere, in your home, in your conversations, in your head.

Another common tactic is threatening phone calls. As the woman HRD from Pakistan recalled: “First they would call my home and talk to my husband, telling him to control me and stop me working….When it comes up as ‘no number,’ the first thing that crosses your mind is you are in trouble. You know it is them”.

How Do We Create a Safer Environment for Use of Tech? Proactive steps that are being taken by HRDs and NGOs to create a safer environment for HRDs in their work. For example, the Front Line Platform set up a practical clinic for three days, offering advice and help setting-up tools that can protect data and communications. But more can be done.

One important step is to increase the attention (and funding) that goes into preventative measures that aim to give HRDs awareness and practical steps to improve their digital security hygiene. There are many fantastic organizations already working on this – Tactical TechFront Line DefendersInternewsNDI  – but it’s clear the demand for face-to-face training still outstrips the number that can be accessed. Many others simply don’t know where to go to find out about the support that is available.

To reach those individuals, there needs to be greater coordination and visibility of efforts. For example, imagine a pairing service that could link a HRD with a security question to the organization that could help them – be it related to secure hosting, email encryption, secure texting or risk assessments.

As technology evolves quickly, so do the capabilities that are becoming cheap and easily available to states and non-state actors alike. This means that it’s important for HRDs to access resources that help them to assess risk and discover potential blind spots in their security practices and behaviors. This should be combined with greater investment in coordinated data collection efforts to map adversary capabilities in different countries and contexts. The more we know, the more HRDs can identify and protect against the invisible threats. All that said, it is not just about Amnesty. It is clear that the creation of practical and relevant solutions requires cross-thematic and cross-organizational thinking and approaches, and we are excited to be a part of that dialogue.

The second piece about the potential of technology is less specific but states inter alia:

For social justice activists, the speed with which news now crosses the globe creates a tremendous opportunity to respond to human rights issues as they emerge. We can now find out about and alert the world to abuses almost as they happen, and people can act immediately to support human rights defenders and others on the front lines of crises.

However, the sheer number of people who struggle for the most basic human rights can be overwhelming. Although it is easy to get dismayed, we must stay heartened that we can make a difference in an individual’s life even from thousands of miles away.

Forty years ago, Amnesty International launched its Urgent Action Network (UAN) to provide people around the world a mechanism to support such individuals. At that time our groups gathered around a table armed with pen and paper, envelopes and stamps. Volunteers wrote letter after letter, making sure that oppressive governments knew that those they targeted were not alone. Today, while still writing letters, we present these stories to a much broader network of individuals, each of whom can raise their voice and stay informed in real time and with various social media tools. It describes as examples 4 individuals [Mansour Ossanlu, who was imprisoned and tortured for organizing workers in Iran, Norma Cruz, who is struggling against gender-based violence in Guatemala, and Jenni Williams, who has been arrested more than 50 times for fighting for social and political rights in Zimbabwe]

Our 21st century flood of news can sometimes be overwhelming — but behind every story of mistreatment, there is a Mansour, a Norma, a Jenni, or an Ann. A real person, fighting for the kind of rights that we can so easily take for granted.

We have a part to play. Simple actions taken half a world away can literally save lives. New tools and technologies vastly increase our ability to do just that.

How Technology Is Helping Us Better Protect Human Rights | Samir Goswami.


3 Responses to “The double face of technology for Human Rights Defenders”

  1. Olga Brajnović Says:

    Very interesting post!

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