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Five new technologies which will revolutionise human rights activism

It’s a brave new world. The technological landscape is constantly changing, in a world where we don’t seem so far away from Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel. With new technologies, come growing concerns about state surveillance and security. However, the development of technology and human rights activism are intrinsically linked. 

In an attempt to move beyond pragmatic optimism towards the future, we’ve compiled a list of five new technologies that offer hope for the future.

Governments around the world are increasingly extending the reach of state surveillance, not least the introduction of the ‘snoopers’ charter’ in the UK and the recent decision in the US to allow ISPs to sell on our browsing data. Human rights activists often have to work covertly, to expose unwanted truths and human rights abuses. For their own safety, some activists are now turning off their GPS technology, shunning certain mobile features, and not using mobile signal, due to the lack of safe spaces for rights groups to operate. The growing trend towards unwanted surveillance appears to be forcing activists further away from a technological future.

In response, at the digital rights conference RightsCon, a group of panellists came together to discuss how activists can move past the increasingly worrying dystopian future of privacy and coercion, by harnessing the potential of these five new technologies.

1. New Software

Software harnessed correctly will change the way activists operate. Collin Sullivan from Benetech explains Martus, a computer operating software, offers human rights activists the ability to encrypt their entire data recording. Encryption is a handy tool, which scrambles a user's data, making it unreadable for those without a secret code to read the information. Martus helps activists verify their stories and data as authentic, whilst protecting them from malicious hacking and malware.

Benetech, a human rights technology group, has also advocated the use of two pieces of software called Tails and Qubes.  Both pieces of software offer extra security for a human rights activist. Tails backs up an activist’s work on an external server, and the computer’s RAM is then wiped at shutdown to remove any indications that the computer has been used. The Tails software is then rebooted every time the computer is switched on, leaving no trace.

Qubes allows an activist to compartmentalise different programs and network connections on their computer. Qubes creates an environment, that doesn't allow a file to access the computer's systems or any of its network connections, thus protecting against malware or viruses.

2. Blockchain technology

You might have heard of blockchain before when people talk about bitcoins. A blockchain is a digital ledger - imagine a big, dusty book of transactions zapped into the 21st century and onto the internet and you’ve got blockchain. It’s a public record of every piece of information added to a given network. Once a piece of information is added to a blockchain it can’t be edited or deleted, without being verified by everyone in the entire network.

You might ask, what does blockchain have to do with human rights activism? Blockchain, has a multitude of real world applications yet to be fully explored, that will allow human rights groups to verify information more easily, make data more secure, and expose human rights abuses.

With one fifth of the world's population not holding a physical identity document, blockchain can be used to verify people's identity worldwide.  Proof of identity is vital for those seeking asylum, digital identities recorded on the blockchain allow people to prove who they are and where they're from. Any unwanted changes to an individual's identity documents would be instantly checked against the blockchain. This could have massive implications in tackling human trafficking and modern slavery.

Secondly, the trade of blood diamonds or conflict minerals has remained a consistent problem since the 1990s. Blockchain technology will allow human rights organisations to digitally certify minerals as conflict and child labour free. Technology companies have in the past been criticised for using conflict minerals like tantalum, tungsten and gold.

Tantalum is an excellent conductor of electricity for making miniaturised electronics, however it is often mined using exploitative child labour in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a region that has seen the bloodiest civil war in recent history. Using blockchain will help activists expose human rights abuses in the electronics industries supply chain more easily.

3. Mixed reality spaces and robotics

Sam Gregory from the human rights group Witness explained, “communications technology and the media are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and multisensory”. He said for human rights groups it's important to harness the power of mixed reality spaces and virtual reality technology to build solidarity amongst audiences.

Reflecting on how mixed reality spaces might work in practice for the human rights activist, Sam posed the hypothetical question “what is a beaming robot for the human rights researcher?” Beaming allows an individual to transfer their persona into a robot from a distance - although beaming might seem like something out of science fiction, the possibilities for beaming robots are endless. An example of its technological application might be beaming into a robotic ant, which then can be used to crawl down into a mine and check how workers are being treated.

4. Hyperspectral imaging

In short, hyperspectral imaging reveals what can’t necessarily be seen by the naked eye. Hyperspectral imaging was first developed in the 1980s for top secret military satellites, but is now becoming more widely available to human rights activists.

To do this, hyperspectral imaging analyses a large spectrum of invisible infrared and visible wavelengths. These wavelengths reflect back differently from different chemical compounds and minerals. Different chemicals give off different wavelengths, like a signature or trace in the soil.

Hyperspectral imaging can then be used by human rights activists to expose and locate mass graves, where genocide may have taken place or help evidence a chemical attack for example.

5. Design thinking

Finally, looking to the future Camilla Soto from the Human Rights Lab explained that a concept called ‘design thinking’ could be the thing to revolutionise activism. The Human Rights Lab is currently using design thinking to help organise their actors better and come up with new strategies to mobilise themselves.

Design thinking is a form of soft technology, or innovation methodology. First developed at Stanford University, design thinking is about problem solving at its core. The methodology has four key elements that make up its framework: define the problem, create and consider a variety of options, refine the selected directions, and execute.

Adapting design thinking to a human rights context will be key according to Soto in making activists more agile, offering better solutions and being more reactive in facing new challenges.

These five new technologies harnessed effectively could have the potential to revolutionise how human rights activists operate, offering an optimistic future in a world increasingly awash with unwanted government and state surveillance.


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