Human rights and technology: building a modern rights movement one fellow at a time

News & Analysis
Human rights and technology: building a modern rights movement one fellow at a time

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You’d be hard pressed to find an issue relating to human rights or the rule of law that wouldn’t benefit from a greater appreciation of the role of technology plays. Increasingly the practice of law, the waging of politics, and the conduct of social and economic affairs all are altered, modified, and even conducted through technological means. So to is the accumulation and use of power.

This is why at Privacy International, technology is at the core of what we do as an organisation. Privacy is not just enhanced by technology, its existence is a modality of the technology in our midst. As such, we are always in great need of additional technological expertise and capability.

This is also why so many of the large human rights organisations are bringing on tech expertise.

However, understanding that technology is central to how we work doesn’t mean that we are all prepared to deal with what this means in practice.

First, not every organisation has the capacity to bring in technology expertise. The hardest roles to fund in NGOs are the technology and communications roles. Want another lawyer or policy person? That’s easy. But justifying a tech role to a funder is far more difficult. And this affects small to medium-sized NGOs the most.

Second, it takes everyone a long time to understand that there is no such thing as bringing on a ‘techie’ to make you a human rights and tech NGO. What kind of techie?

  • A security expert who can reverse engineer hardware may struggle with securing your website and managing all the certs.
  • A database administrator could help you understand the technicalities of an ID system and your fundraising CRM but may struggle to explain cyber security to policy-makers or debate an intelligence agency.
  • A telecoms engineer could help decipher leaked documents about a national-scale surveillance system but may not know how to patch software.

I’ve just described about seven different roles that we need at PI, and we only have two technologists. When we do well, it’s because my colleagues have an incredible passion, a capacity to learn, and ability to engage across communities. When we screw up, it’s rightly my fault we don’t have enough funds to bring in more people like them.

Third, once in the organisation, unless you’re ready to outsource everything to the very companies who want to harvest and exploit your data (and do so within the US, which offers weaker protections to non-Americans), well, odds are that the tech staff will be playing tech support roles more often than not.

Now this isn’t entirely unfair. In small NGOs everyone gets involved in the small things — which I think is one of the virtues of working in smaller organisations. Our legal team, some of the best legal minds I’ve ever come across, review all our contracts, big and small, our privacy policies and practices. This requires patience, and collegiality across the board.

A modern rights organisation

You can’t ‘bring tech into’ an organisation. Rather, you have to build the tech confidence and expertise of the entire organisation. This is really hard and we struggle all the time. We need to understand technology and the technical details to even ask the right questions.

This is particularly hard for PI. In 2018 alone, PI is researching and working in the areas of:

  • artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • analytics and profiling
  • internet of things data generation, collection, retention, and security
  • data brokers
  • identity systems
  • fintech and innovation in the financial services
  • intelligence agencies and their capabilities of conducting mass surveillance, hacking, and sharing with other countries
  • cybersecurity, offensive and defensive security, and government hacking for surveillance
  • new policing capabilities through the use of new technologies including mobile extraction and other forensic tools, targeted hacking, social-media monitoring

In the meantime we are running a tech infrastructure to protect our staff, our supporters, our partner organisations across the world, and our contacts who entrust us (notable our research and investigations team) with knowledge, documents, and data.

We are so fortunate for the tech expertise we have. We have a Tech Team that is overstretched, but is fighting hard to build sustainable technical knowledge and systems into our work and partnerships. And our other colleagues try hard to learn more about how our technical systems operate.

But there is a constant growth in demand for technical know-how that is often beyond the reach of civil society.

This is one reason why the Mozilla Open Web Fellowship is so important. It allows for new expertise to come into NGOs that badly need it. It gives tech experts the opportunity to join civil society to impart expertise and learn how we do things differently. Two years ago we had a fellow who was a security expert who brought that expertise and relationships into the organisation and in turn introduced us to new communities and perspectives, deepening our understandings.

For us and any organisation seeking temporary new sources of expertise, fellows can provide any or all of the following:

  • a greater capacity for organisations to understand the technical issues in our midst and the upcoming issues so that we can best prepare our advocacy strategies, e.g. AI and privacy
  • a greater capacity for organisations to test the resilience of our chosen solutions and positions so we can better secure people and protect their privacy into the future, e.g. security research and vulnerabilities disclosure
  • a greater competence in domains that are currently beyond an organisations’ reach, bringing our lens into that domain and bringing that domain into our repertoire, e.g. penetration testing and implications for civil society
  • a richer set of relationships with more technical communities who can today and tomorrow engage with us and help advance our understandings, such as research communities, development communities, telecommunciations engineers, software engineers, and others

Mozilla and the Open Web Fellows are essential to a field doing good and much needed work. More is needed for the world that we’re in. Please apply! Apply here.