The Future of Human Rights Technology

On October 30, the Hunter College Human Rights Program convened a panel on the future of human rights technology featuring WITNESS Program Director Sam Gregory, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch Iain Levine and Vice President for Human Rights Programs at Benetech Enrique Piraces.

During the panel, moderated by Andrew Raseij of The Personal Democracy Forum, participants highlighted the benefits of technology in human rights work while also focusing on the emerging challenges and tensions often posed by the same technological tools. In looking towards the future, the panelists agreed that the fields of technology and human rights will continue to become increasingly intertwined. They concluded that to maximize the potential impact of available technology, human rights organizations must engage more closely with the tech world to shape the platforms being used by human rights defenders and human rights organizations for sharing information (E.g. Facebook and YouTube) and advocate for Internet regulatory frameworks that emphasize online privacy and proportionate (not blanket) surveillance to ensure humans defenders can work freely.

“The future of human rights technology is not something to predict, its something to invent.” — Enrique Piraces

Each panelist spoke about how technology has affected their work in human rights. Sam Gregory described how with the changing technological landscape, many more people are now using video for human rights, posing challenges around how to reach these new activists or citizen journalists with the skills and tools to make sure their media is impactful. Iain Levine shared how Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been able to use new technology, such as satellite imagery, to do research in places where it is not safe to send someone in person. He also detailed HRW’s increased use of crowdsourcing to gather and verify information.

Enrique Piraces grounded the conversation with a reminder that both human rights and technology are complex spaces attempting to tackle many very difficult problems. Piraces focused on our individual online data trails and how it is important to try to protect vulnerable populations from inadvertent surveillance and potential threats. He predicted that in the future (which for the purposes of this discussion, he defined as a time span of 3-5 years) that people will approach new technologies with more skepticism and caution due to a greater awareness of surveillance, data collection and potential negative ramifications of unknown digital tools.

While millions of people are using video technology and the internet to capture and share human rights abuse, Iain Levine highlighted how technology is also used by human rights violators to humiliate victims, incite fear or spread messages of hate. Panelists discussed the complicated ethical considerations around sharing perpetrator media, such as violent videos created by extremist groups like ISIS, and discussed how its use and sharing must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Enrique Piraces introduced the idea that with the emergence of more advanced facial recognition technologies and the use of video as evidence, perpetrators may be inadvertently incriminating themselves down the road, as media and online activity could be used in the future as part of a justice and accountability process.

 “(With many of the big tech companies) …you’ve got what is essentially a public utility, but it’s controlled by a private company. And it’s a public utility that determines our ability to receive and transmit information.”  — Iain Levine

Another key theme discussed was the relationship between human rights groups and tech companies themselves. Questions were raised surrounding how the human rights community can most effectively engage with the tech world and advocate for features and policies that strengthen the ability of individuals to safely and effectively share stories of human rights abuse. From advocating for features such a face-blurring tool on YouTube, to fighting take-downs of graphic videos that document war crimes in Syria, the panelists emphasized the importance of making sure that human rights values and considerations are heard and implemented in the design and execution of the technologies we use in our daily lives.

Want to Learn More?

For more on human rights and technology, check out the WITNESS blog and follow the panel participants on Twitter at @samgregory, @iainlevine@epiraces and @Raseij.

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