Technology and Human Rights | MIT Center for Civic Media

Technology and Human Rights

Liveblog of the Netroots Nation panel, Safeguarding Democracy: Innovations in Technology and Human Rights

Caitlin Howarth, of the Satellite Sentinel Project, has assembled an impressive panel of women working at the intersection of tech and human rights. First up is Emily Jacobi, cofounder of Digital Democracy (@digidem).

Emily has seen some amazing changes in the world in the past few years, and she attributes these changes to technology and how people are using it. People who were completely marginalized from conversations are picking up the tools of mass communication. Digital Democracy focuses on small 'd' democracy and the grassroots engagement rather than large institutions.

You always need to begin with digital literacy, and that's where local partners are key. The ability of a community to use these tools is great, but it's not enough to be outside the halls of power pounding on keyboards. Digital organizing and digital citizenship can change the power dynamic.

Five years ago, Emily was on the Thai-Burma border working with young refugees. She found a high correlation between internet access and activism, even if "access" was as limited as a mobile phone or distant internet cafe. Burma's military dictatorship had repressed its people for years, but Emily attributes a sense that change was indeed possible to the influence of the internet. The Saffron Uprising started with a few organizers from the '88 generation, but sparked a larger protest amongst monks and other groups. The nation has less than 1% mobile phone and internet access, but increased access to technology and cameras. The government cracked down on the uprising and instituted a full 5-day blackout, which effectively shut down the protest.

Emily helped create, which uses Ushahidi to aggregate ten years of human rights data. It's easy to see on the map that Burma wasn't a great place to be.

Organizers started Barcamp Yangon, an unconference, in January 2010. In a country where gatherings of more than 5 people are illegal, the organizers somehow convinced the government to allow them to hold an event for 3,000 people. This year's Barcamp is the third, and featured a prominent human rights figure speaking on youth and technology. In the span of only 5 years, significant changes have taken place in Burma, and technology has helped make this happen.

Digital Democracy also works with women's groups in Haiti, including photography trainings before the earthquake hit. Rape and sexual assault skyrocketed in the tents. Women had already organized a group of about 3,000 members to fight back against rape before the earthquake hit. They've raised awareness and funds with photography exhibits. Their blog is written in Creole and translated into English. Women coordinate in the camps using FrontlineSMS, and have created a database of stories. They've also launched a free 572 support line to direct women to social, medical, and psychological support resources.

Matisse Bustos Hawkes is with Witness, an organization training people to use video safely and effectively for human rights change. They've interviewed women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is commonly used as a weapon of war. Documentation is one way to fight back against rape, but those who document are targeted, and technology's reach is limited in the region.

There is an increasing range and scope of the use of technology to document human rights abuses. George Holiday is the accidental human rights witness who shot the video footage of the LAPD beating Romney King in 1991. We are all witnesses, and when we carry cameras, we can amplify what we see. There's also been an increase in perpetrators themselves documenting human rights abuses with cameras. Egyptian police routinely recorded the beatings they doled out.

The professional journalists, including Al Jazeera and CNN's iReport, have also expanded the number of locations and players documenting human rights abuses. Video is used as evidence at the International Criminal Court. Organizers bring projectors to screen films in communities. There's Citizentube on YouTube. Our access to human rights video has expanded dramatically.

With these technological advances come challenges and opportunities with specific meanings for human rights. Witness is concerned with privacy, personal safety and security of those documenting, but also those who are recorded. Geotagging is a huge concern. Wael Abbas tracked, aggregated, and mapped footage of police abuse in Egypt. But pro-government forces also circled stills of subjects' faces in red and crowdsourced their identity, then found and arrested these people. Technological advances work for both sides.

Witness partners with organizations and hackers like the Guardian Project to create applications that incorporate privacy and identity as well as informed consent. The recently released ObscuraCam, available on Android, uses facial recognition technology to find and pixelate the faces in your photos. It can save and encrypt an original image, but it's designed to be used on the fly while you're at a protest and can't realistically ask everyone to consent to their face being filmed. The app enhances your own privacy but also that of the people in your photos. It currently works on still photos and will soon work on video, as well.

The Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference (RightsCon) was organized to educate the engineers at Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and other tech companies about human rights concerns. In the Arab Spring, we saw democratic revolutions that depended to some degree on software built by engineers in California. Google and Facebook's real-name policies, for example, pose major challenges to the personal safety of human rights organizers.

Sabrina Hersi Issa helps civil society groups in developing countries to use mobile and online organizing tools to circumvent political roadblocks. The famine in the Horn of Africa was the worst in many years, affecting millions of people across Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Sabrina previously worked in Afghanistan, and saw a similar level of statelessness. She was asked why she cared about Afghans, as she is African, and answered that we're more alike than we are different. Sabrina sees the emergence of Al-Shabab, a terrorist group playing directly from the Taliban's playbook, as further evidence of this.

Al-Shabab threw out the Red Cross, World Food Programme, World Food Program, and every other aid group for fear that they were dispersing military intelligence. Relief organizations were able to circumvent the blockades to deliver food.

Apps and technology are popular, but often put the activists on the ground in physical danger. Analog methods like pen and paper can help prevent data from falling in the wrong hands. Sabrina pulls up Al-Shabab's Twitter account, which promises that their enemies will be vanquished. Somalis are an oral, communicative people, but they use mobile phones person-to-person more than they use services like Twitter. Given previous experience, there's no trust in media or social media. You communicate directly to the people you care about.

Sabrina emphasizes the importance of local context and culture when using technology in the field. In Somalia, your full name is essentially your ZIP code. Identity is wrapped into your name, and it can often be traced back to a single village and family. For this reason, they worked to protect these names. Sabrina saw analog social networks and person-to-person strategies work in helping the aid groups evade the blockades.

What happens next? There's a drought spreading across the Sahel region, and it's a problem that ignores borders, as it crosses Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad. How do we use technology to respond to a crisis that is increasingly beyond political and cultural borders?


Lauren Wolfe directs the Women's Media Center project, Women Under Siege. It was founded by Gloria Steinem to document and highlight how rape is used as a tool of war, historically and today. The front page news about conflicts covers the leaders and the battle casualties, both of which are usually men. Women's stories end up on page two.

Lauren used Twitter to find others interested in these stories, and quickly found a doctor at Harvard. This woman used Ushahidi's CrowdMap tool to map rape in conflict regions. Media coverage often consists of isolated stories in different regions over time. This map looks at the bigger picture.

Documentation of rape in conflict zones is often done after the war is over, and with broad strokes. Women Under Siege has designed a form to measure specifically what is happening to women (and sometimes men) in real-time and by location. The data allows them to send in additional resources when they identify a hotspot.

Verification of the information is a challenge, but a challenge Lauren is uniquely suited for, as she was previously a journalist. It's impossible to know everything that's happening, but they're working to profile types of submissions. Media coverage requires verification of the story, and these reports can't offer that.

They're also using FrontlineSMS and a local shortcode in Beirut to allow women to submit stories via text. This is literally keeping Lauren up at night. Cellphones track us, and digital security experts have explained that the people submitting the stories know almost nothing about technology, and they're up against the Syrian government. As a result, they won't be disseminating the number, except to human rights groups and doctors on the ground.

Their challenge now is to make sure that everyone knows that reports can be submitted at


Organizing Diasporas

Sabrina: You have to understand that the community is already there, and you have to find out where they live. The Somali diaspora is young and has experienced statelessness and food insecurity. Crafting a connection to what's happening on the ground was an easy link to connect. Feedback loops are critical, too.

Emily mentions Mission 4636 in Haiti, a shortcode people could report to after the earthquake. The Haitian diaspora in the US translated tens of thousands of text messages for aid workers. But she does caution that politics change when one moves from one's homeland. There's a tension between the pain of leaving and the pain of staying.



Unlike in the US, the default in human rights is not public. Lauren has held back reports with sensitive information. She points to Syria as a black hole of reporting. Stories don't make it out, because everyone has an agenda. She's struggled with reporting information that can't be verified, as sharing these stories is the entire point of her project, but at the end of the day, if a story cannot be verified they're not doing anyone any favors.

Videos can easily be faked, or the people on film may have been coerced to say and do the things they are saying and doing. A recent video of a beheading in Syria was actually repurposed from a video originally shot in Mexico.


Mobile security

You are the least secure thing about your technology. Your phone can be Fort Knox, but if you leave it somewhere, it doesn't matter.

iPhone batteries can't be removed, and if your battery's still in your phone, you're being tracked.

We can put ourselves and others at risk simply by having information. Assessing who needs to know what can prevent a situation from arising to begin with.


Witness has put out a really useful Video for Change book that details how to effectively and securely use video in a human rights context.