We must understand threats in the technology we use every day

Like everyone else, human rights activists use mobile phones, email and social networks to connect. Unlike most people, they criticise states, challenging their actions. As such, they attract their attention.

Sherif Elsayed-Ali
13 June 2016



Amnesty International campaigners protest against human rights abuses linked to Vedanta's aluminium refinery in Orissa, India, 2010. Lewis Whyld /Press Association. All rights reserved.The greater the effectiveness and reach of human rights defenders (HRDs) and organisations, the more attention will state institutions give them. This means they can be more influential, but also that these institutions will put more time and effort into knowing what they are up to and, potentially, disrupting it.

Present threats

At Amnesty, we’ve seen a very significant increase over the last two years in HRDs telling us that they fear their communications are being monitored by their governments. We have, ourselves, been the subject of illegal surveillance in Britain, the country where the organization started and where we have our biggest office. This is just the direct evidence. There is no doubt that many governments intercept and monitor the communications of HRDs and organisations and in some cases even aggressively attack their computers and phones by hacking them.

As human rights organisations and HRDs, we need to understand how this happens and how to protect ourselves. Not doing anything puts people at risk. The least worst outcome if your communications are being monitored might be that a government interferes with your research or mobilisation efforts – for example evidence you may have otherwise been able to find could be hidden, or your attempt to organise a protest gets scuppered.

But things can get much worse – activists get arrested, tortured and killed because of the work they do, and it can be in part because their communications, or your communications with them, were insecure and vulnerable to government surveillance.

At Amnesty, we are keenly aware of these risks and the responsibility to protect our communications and those we work with. We have substantially strengthened our security systems and are investing in training our staff, but we also want to contribute to greater digital security for the wider human rights movement. Here are two examples of how we’re doing this:

The Secure Communications Framework

Everyone knows that some governments can undertake electronic surveillance, monitoring mobile calls and internet traffic. What is not always known is that any government can do this. The technology is cheap, readily available and easy to use.

The question that HRDs and organisations need to ask themselves is not whether their government has surveillance capabilities, but whether they are likely to use it against them. Next, if they believe that they are at risk of surveillance, they need to decide how they will protect themselves.

The Secure Communication Framework is a practical tool for HRDs and organisations to guide them through the process of assessing the risk of surveillance and the methods and tools they should use, based on that risk. It was built to be simple and approachable for non-security experts.

The framework was developed within Amnesty and based on our own understanding of day-to-day human rights work and experience working with HRDs and partner organisations in many countries. The framework was developed thanks to the Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellows Program; it is open source so that anybody can adapt if for their own purposes. We are currently working on documentation to accompany the framework and will release it as a package in coming months. You can find an overview here.

Campaigning for strong encryption

Encryption is an essential means of protecting our personal information. Encryption aims to make information accessible only to its owner or its intended recipient. For example, if applied to emails, encryption ensures that only the sender and the recipient can read the email; if someone is intercepting your internet connection, they will only see scrambled information.

Encryption helps protect us from cybercriminals and government surveillance. It is not a panacea for digital security, but it is essential to it. For HRDs, it means their communications are protected against all but the most invasive kinds of surveillance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many governments don’t like encryption. Countries such as Pakistan, India and Cuba have bans or restrictions on encryption in place.

Earlier this year, the FBI tried to force Apple to create a version of their iPhone software which would have allowed for its encryption system to be bypassed. Such ‘backdoors’ to the encryption deployed in devices or services could potentially make the data of all users of a device or service vulnerable to being stolen or accessed.

Amnesty is campaigning for stronger encryption in products and services. We want governments to stop trying to ban, restrict, or weaken it, and we want companies to strengthen encryption in their products and clearly communicate with their users who can access their data.

As a human rights movement, we have to understand the risks that come with digital technologies. These are great tools for communications, outreach and mobilisation, but they can very easily be turned against us. We have a responsibility towards the victims we support, our sources and partners: whether we campaign on human rights issues, provide legal advice or training, or fund human right work, we all have a responsibility to protect our data and communications with the people we work with. Many of us have started taking concrete steps, but much more needs to be done.

What the future holds

The amount of our personal and behavioural data that lives in the cloud will increase exponentially as every day objects become connected to the internet. With the Internet of Things (IoT), new household goods are becoming ‘smart’: thermostats that monitor heating patterns and activate autonomously, home personal assistants with ‘always on’ microphones, and cars continuously connected to the internet are just some of the already existing examples. Eventually, almost every device we use, and even things like clothing will be connected. This means that the potential for surveillance will be much bigger – unless systems are built to protect privacy.

Earlier this year, James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence said that,“In the future, intelligence services might use the [internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.”

But increased connectivity won’t be the only issue. Computers can process data much more efficiently than humans and are becoming smarter every day. They are already being used for predictive policing – determining the likelihood of crime based on complex algorithms. There are many risks in this approach – one of them is algorithmic bias: that the initial programming includes biases, intentional or not, that can result in discriminatory treatment against certain groups, for example religious or ethnic minorities. The use of artificial intelligence in policing and crime prevention is likely to spread significantly over the coming years.

These emerging risks need urgent attention from the human rights movement. We need to demand more transparency from companies developing these products and from state agencies using them, and we need to campaign for strong human rights protections, both in the technology and in law. If we don’t act swiftly, today’s mass surveillance will seem like child’s play.

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