Published in Partnership with Forbes.com.
- Innovations in technology offer disruptive and transformative opportunities in the field of human rights.
- At the same time these innovations present complex ethical and moral challenges.
- A step change to enable further innovation requires new thinking and an investment of resources to develop an ethical and moral framework to unlock further innovation.
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 The microfilm that enabled Karski to spirit out evidence of atrocities in Europe during the war have been replaced by USB flash drives with multiple terabytes of storage for numerous forms of media – and much more.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 field.
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 alone.
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 example.
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.