Tech and Human Rights at #SXSW

A cellphone can be both a powerful tool and a huge risk for human rights activists. Images and videos captured through mobile phones can reveal police brutality or even war crimes, as the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have shown.

However, information saved on activists’ cell phones can also expose dissident networks or other sensitive data. During the recent protests in Ukraine, police reportedly used locations revealed through cell phones to track protestors.

The “digital arms race” between activists and repressive governments is the main focus of our SXSW panel Caught in the Act: Mobile Tech and Human Rights on Tuesday, March 11.

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Inside the Development of Amnesty’s New Panic Button App

Activists create a visual agenda for a week of workshops focused on using technology in human rights work (Photo Credit: Amnesty International).

Activists create a visual agenda for a week of workshops focused on using technology in human rights work (Photo Credit: Amnesty International).

By Tanya O’Carroll, Technology & Human Rights Project Officer at Amnesty International

When Amnesty was founded 50 years ago, our tool of choice was the pen. Thousands would write letters to governments demanding the release of Prisoners of Conscience. Pen and paper helped release human rights advocates in many countries around the world.

New technologies – such as social media and mobile Internet – have fundamentally changed how we shed light on and respond to human rights abuses. Today, almost anyone with a mobile phone can be a human rights monitor and challenge the abuse of power by capturing and sharing documentation of abuses as they happen.

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Eritrea’s Independence: 20 Years of Brutal Repression

Explore the interactive map of suspected places of detention in EritreaExplore the interactive map of suspected places of detention in Eritrea (Photo Credit: Amnesty International USA).

Explore the interactive map of suspected places of detention in Eritrea.

As the 20 year anniversary of Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia approaches, the euphoria and – one may speculate – hope, that characterized celebrations on May 24, 1993 could hardly be more incongruent with the bleak reality faced by the Eritrean people today.

The scope of repression in Eritrea is truly striking. Thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners have disappeared into a vast and secret system of detention, many never to be heard from again. This system of abuse is used to silent all dissent and punish anyone who refuses to comply, including suspected critics of the government, journalists, pastors and other members of “unregistered” religious groups, those who have been caught attempting to flee the country and those forcibly returned to Eritrea from other countries.

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What Happens When You Cry Wolf to the Kenyan Crowd

One of the recurrent challenges associated with utilizing social media outlets to report and monitor a situation during a period of time when ground events may or may not be rapidly developing (such as in Kenya): the situation is often times much more complex than 140 characters can convey, and the incorrect use of just a few words, could easily become an overflow of ingredients to an already bubbling human rights situation (Photo Credit: Till Muellenmeister/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the recurrent challenges associated with utilizing social media outlets to report and monitor a situation during a period of time when ground events may or may not be rapidly developing (such as in Kenya): the situation is often times much more complex than 140 characters can convey, and the incorrect use of just a few words, could easily become an overflow of ingredients to an already bubbling human rights situation (Photo Credit: Till Muellenmeister/AFP/Getty Images)

Like many others, I have been closely watching the Kenyan elections. In fact, these elections may be the most “watched” elections ever. I am not necessarily talking about observers on the ground. Digital tools, including social media outlets, have greatly enhanced remote monitoring capability, and have emerged as a major component in the Kenyan elections.

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Is North Korea Turning Into One Big Prison?

(c) DigitalGlobe 2013. Panchromatic Imagery, February 7, 2013. 39 38 02 N, 125 59 52 E

(c) DigitalGlobe 2013. Panchromatic Imagery, February 7, 2013. 39 38 02 N, 125 59 52 E

This posting is part of the North Korea Revealed blogging series, published in the context of efforts to establish a Commission of Inquiry at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council (February 25 – March 22). Join the conversation through #NKRevealed.

Amnesty International is releasing new satellite images today that raise fears that the North Korean government is starting to blur the line between the country’s horrendous political prison camps and regular villages. This disturbing new development gives further fuel to a previous warning by a UN expert that authorities are turning the country into “one big prison,” and stress the urgent need for the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry.

We commissioned satellite imagery analysis from DigitalGlobe after reading reports about a potential new political prison camp. The original speculations were based on Google Earth satellite imagery from the fall of 2011. We were able to secure imagery from February 2013, allowing us to provide the most up-to-date snapshot possible of worrisome developments in a valley adjacent to prison camp 14.

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North Korea: Stories From The Forgotten Prisons

Explore the system of political prison camps in North Korea

Explore the system of political prison camps in North Korea

This is the first of several postings of the North Korea Revealed blogging series, published in the context of efforts to establish a Commission of Inquiry at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council (February 25 – March 22). Join the conversation through #NKRevealed.

I was born in North Korea in 1982. I was born in a political prison camp (…) and lived there until I escaped in 2005 (…) I was born to an imprisoned mother and father. —Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known North Korean born in a political prison camp to have escaped.

Shin’s shocking story personifies the horrors of North Korea’s vast network of political prison camps, believed to house over a hundred thousand prisoners. His story is emblematic for the daily forced hard labor, calculated starvation and torture that prisoners have to endure. It also reflects the system of collective punishment that results in the incarceration of several generations of one family, often for life. You can hear more from Shin on a new video playlist, together with testimonies of other escapees and exiles. Their voices urge immediate action to stop the horrors of the prison camps. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Twitter to the Rescue? How Social Media is Transforming Human Rights Monitoring

Syrian youths, inside a vehicle, film a protest against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with their phones in the northern city of Aleppo.

Syrian youths, inside a vehicle, film a protest against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with their phones in the northern city of Aleppo on October 12, 2012. (Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)

Social media is increasingly helpful to not only monitor emerging human rights emergencies, but also to uncover incorrect information. A recent example is when Twitter helped me to spot incorrect contextual information on a newly uploaded execution video from Syria. This is just one instance in which crowdsourced expertise from social media can open up new opportunities for human rights organizations. Having that said, the challenges and pitfalls are numerous. I thought about these issues a lot while preparing for a Truthloader debate last week on how citizen journalism is changing the world. Current case in point is the upcoming elections in Kenya, which are probably the best (citizen) monitored elections in history.

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