Featured image courtesy of Benetech. From left to right: Enrique Piraces of Benetech, Iain Levine of Human Rights Watch, WITNESS Program Director Sam Gregory and Stephan Sonnenberg of Stanford University Law School.

Congratulations to Benetech on the 10-year anniversary of Martus, a software program for the secure management of human rights documentation! WITNESS was honored to co-host a small celebration earlier this month alongside Benetech and Human Rights Watch. WITNESS Program Director Sam Gregory participated on a panel titled “The Future of Human Rights Tech” near Benetech’s home base in Palo Alto, California. Sam joined Enrique Piraces, Vice President of Benetech’s Human Rights Program, and Iain Levine, Deputy Executive Director at Human Rights Watch and moderator, Stephan Sonnenberg of Stanford University Law School, on the panel.

Upon his return, Sam shared some background on the event, and on the elements he highlighted during the event.

What is The Martus Project? How has WITNESS been involved in this project over the years?

Martus is Benetech’s free and secure information management tool – and its one of the main tools used by NGOs and rights defenders. Martus enables users to create an encrypted database for their information that can then be backed up to publicly available servers. Martus stores and protects sensitive information including the identities of individuals who provide testimony on human rights abuses. We are looking forward to seeing Martus incorporating InformaCam, a tool we have developed with the Guardian Project for human rights defenders to securely share visual media that is more trustworthy, into the platform.

What do we mean by ‘human rights tech’?

When we talk about human rights technology and its future, it is important to think about what this can mean. Are we talking about dedicated technology for human rights advocates? Or better human rights usages in consumer technology that is being used by a growing number of citizen witnesses and activists? Or are we talking about pushing for the operationalization of human rights values in mainstream tech? All are important parts of human rights tech – but they speak to different parts of the puzzle of how we ensure people can use technology for human rights effectively and safely.

What is WITNESS seeing in the world of human rights tech, and particularly video technology?  

We are seeing an increasingly large and diverse range of participants creating human rights documentation. In these people, we see many more potential activists and citizen witnesses who are utilizing the tools of visual storytelling and sharing that they have to hand.. When you have more than 300 million Facebook photos uploaded a day, and over 100 minutes of footage uploaded to YouTube every minute, even a tiny percentage of social justice and human rights content is a lot. It is also increasingly hard to separate video as a technology from its intersection with other technologies and tools such as data, mobiles, the Internet, the cloud etc. or as a tactic from related storytelling approaches in social media and online and offline organizing and advocacy.


Sharat Ganapati via flickr

Image courtesy of Sharat Ganapati via Creative Commons.

What are some of the key points you commonly highlight when discussing human rights and technology?

When discussing the intersection of human rights and technology, there are a number of areas we think are important to consider:

  • As I mentioned before, we need to grow skills, capabilities and knowledge of human rights practices for both a greater number and wider range of individuals. So its not just the human rights NGO, but the citizen activist who just started six months ago, and the eyewitness who just turned their camera on what they saw.
  • In an age where the technology provides for a constant information overload, it is important to focus on questions of how to both find patterns in the information ‘data exhaust’ from all the tech devices we have such as mobiles and from a volume of media and information, and also how to find and verify/trust the proverbial needle in the haystack , the one piece of media that is crucial evidence or makes the advocacy argument. Then, it is critical to discuss how to preserve this material. When activists have such a volume of images it’s easy to lose track of what there is, and to lose track of chain of custody and documentation around material. At WITNESS we have attempted to help with this last problem through our new resource, The Activist’s Guide to Archiving Video.
  • In an age where cameras are everywhere, privacy is a huge issue, particularly at the intersection of mobile and the Internet with video since each of these technologies is in and of themselves relatively privacy-compromising. We must always be thinking about this when working with video and make sure that safety and security considerations are taken into account when filming and within the design of both training and technology.
  • An emphasis on ethics and particularly on how we translate human rights practices around consent to a larger and more diverse group of people.
  • Paying attention to the unseen protagonists in the form of technology actors whose platforms and tools are used by millions, and policy-makers whose decisions on mobile and Internet privacy set the ground rules for how people can use tools and others can inhibit them, watch them or suppress them.
  • New models for engagement and impact via technology – for example by looking at how to address the combination of engaging audiences to empathize, understand and care, and then turning this into meaningful, relevant action via the intersection of live video, distributed networks and much more specific task-routing that I’ve recently explored within a Future for Good Fellowship on the future of human rights witnessing at the Institute for the Future.


Derriel via flickr

Photo courtesy of Derriel via Creative Commons.

How should we support people in a place like Burma or Syria to document better, for e.g. as video as evidence?

It’s critical to think about the right combination of providing tools, training on tools and providing skills around tools. For example, we’ve been working on development of InformaCam, a tool to enable people to capture more easily verifiable and trustable media and share it securely to someone they trust.

But of course, with InformaCam you could shoot incontrovertible proof of the wrong thing if you don’t know what is important and relevant to capture for human rights documentation or as potential evidentiary leads. And you could film great footage in ways that compromise individual’s safety and neglects consent if you’re not familiar with these concerns. That’s why we’ve been working on tools like the guide to interviewing survivors of gender-based violence and guides for how citizens can shoot better documentation.

2 thoughts on “Human Rights Tech and the 10-year Anniversary of Martus!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *