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[liberationtech] Disruption at the Intersection of Technology and Human Rights - Forbes

Yosem Companys companys at
Mon Nov 12 21:41:05 PST 2012

11/12/2012 @ 11:47 AM

Disruption at the Intersection of Technology and Human Rights

Editor’s note: Randy Newcomb is President and CEO of Humanity United,
one of the largest private donors in the field of international human
rights. Founded by Pam & Pierre Omidyar, Humanity United seeks to
build peace and advance human freedom in the corners of the globe
where these ideals are challenged most.

This article was originally written for the Skoll World Forum.

Standing in the Holocaust Memorial Museum and in one of his first
public statements on the subject, US President Barack Obama
acknowledged the role technology has played in enabling human rights
abuses. On April 23, 2012, he announced Executive Order 13606. It
directs the Treasury Department to introduce sanctions against
Iranians and Syrians who tortured and killed their own citizens.

The announcement was a formal and public recognition of the
transformative and disruptive role of technology – albeit, in this
case for harm.   But buried later in Obama’s remarks was something
equally groundbreaking: He would be awarding the United States’
highest civilian honor, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom to the
now deceased, Jan Karski, most recently known as an influential
faculty member at Georgetown University in International Affairs,
Comparative Government, and East European Studies. He was also one of
the heroes of World War II’s Polish resistance movement, the Union For
Armed Struggle.

Imprisoned, tortured, and nearly murdered, Karski was tireless at
documenting and gathering evidence of the Holocaust during the war.
He was also one of the first to use information technology to document
human rights abuses. Using a relatively recent innovation,
Microfilm—patented in 1925—Karski assiduously recorded mass murder and
crimes against humanity during World War II.

Nearly seventy years later, information technology innovations are
offering disruptive solutions that are transforming our modern era.
The microfilm that enabled Karski to spirit out evidence of atrocities
in Europe during the war have been replaced by USB flash drives with
multiple terabytes of storage for numerous forms of media – and much
more.  The trajectory of innovation is overhauling the human rights

Look at Benetech’s development of Martus, a human rights database,
based in the cloud with highly secure encryption and eraser technology
in the form of a “panic button” should data be compromised. Look at
Ushahidi’s crisis mapping innovations, or Handheld Human Rights, which
uses the Ushahidi platform to make human rights data more accessible.
Look at Witness, which helps people use mobile telephone video as a
powerful tool for documentation, engagement and policy change. These
are all the result of the surge of innovation in the past five years

Of course, more complex technology brings with it more ethical and
moral questions.  Innovation and ethics have clashed, particularly, in
the past two years across North Africa and the Middle East. When the
Egyptian revolution began on January 25, 2011 as a non-violent civil
resistance, social media and tech tools such as Twitter, Facebook,
CNN’s i-Report, and others were more pervasive than the resistance
movement’s placards and banners.  When violent clashes began to spike
between Egyptian security forces and protestors, documentation of the
violence was recorded and distributed in real time. Yet at the same
time, the identical media that were used to bear witness and document
the violence was now turned on the protestors by its own government to
squelch the uprising.  It’s well-documented that security forces used
images from social media and broadcast journalism to “red-line”
protestors in the Egyptian Revolution, identifying them through
crowdsourcing, then detaining and torturing them.

Fortunately many from the tech and human rights communities are
focusing on these issues.  Access jumped out front on tackling some of
the questions during the 2011 Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference,
with a follow up at the 2012 Rio de Janeiro Human Rights & Technology
Conference.  And Netroots Nation’s 2012 gathering included sessions on
innovations in technology and human rights. The recent request for
proposals by Microsoft Research to address challenges at the
intersection of human trafficking and technology offers a promising

Impact investors, donors and policy makers can be far more forward
thinking by linking resources to fund the next round of technology
innovation and offering incentives to thought leaders to tackle the
ethical and moral questions. They can then build the ethical
scaffolding that unlocks the innovation. USAID’s recent Technology
Challenge for Atrocity Prevention funded both by Humanity United and
USAID, offers a prototype for how some of the challenges in atrocity
prevention can be solved.

But many questions persist. How do we weigh the personal advantages,
and public risks, of technology use? At what point does protecting
civil liberties in one country become the responsibility to protect in
another country when confronted with clear evidence of human rights
abuses on a Twitter feed?  What’s the new role of corporate global
governance when technology platforms become the public square?

These and many other questions are confronting us as we adapt to truly
disruptive technology. Left unanswered, the potential to wreak
considerable human rights abuse remains unchecked.  Struggling with
the ethical questions and developing solutions will be a
disruption—one that’s required for the next step change in innovation.
 And for the common good of humanity.

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