First, the welcome news: a new tool was launched last week by the Women’s Media Center’s project, Women Under Siege, to track sexual violence committed against women in Syria. Using Ushahidi technology, this project uses crowdsourcing to collect and map evidence of sexual violence, in real time or as close to real time as the “crowd” would like. Survivors, witnesses, and first-responders can submit reports via email, Twitter (using #RapeinSyria) or directly via the site.
Collecting this type of data is vital toward ensuring accountability for human rights crimes related to sexual violence, especially in conflict settings where human rights monitors may be unable to gain access. By highlighting the issue to the public and policy-makers, by empowering women and girls with a tool to share their stories, and by compiling reports of crimes related to sexual violence which are incredibly under-reported as it is, new technological tools allow us to see through the fog of war and send a strong message to perpetrators of violence—your crimes will not go unnoticed.
We have been utilizing new tools and techniques such as crowdsourcing, remote-sensing and interactive mapping for quite some time now. Last year, we launched the interactive Eyes on Syria platform. By mapping user-submitted solidarity messages and activism stories, as well as visualizing human rights abuses, Amnesty has been able to publicly highlight the atrocities being committed in Syria. As a grassroots human rights movement, nothing would be complete without a means for taking action—so integrated into the map are action outlets where folks can click to take action.
The deployment of these new tools and technologies by the international community for human rights monitoring, research, advocacy and direct service provision have filled an integral niche in our work, including the rapid saturation of social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook into our daily lives. Social media, in the same vein as the deployment of new technological tools, can be used to convey information across time zones and political boundaries, and serve as a means of community empowerment. Personally, I use social media apps to stay in touch with friends near and far, to share and read interesting or thought-provoking articles, and more increasingly, to help track the news.
With the advent of anything new, however, new risk is inherently generated as well.
Stalking women in the United States
So a bit of scary news: this past weekend, while I was skimming Facebook from my smart phone, I came across an article a friend had posted…. which scared me. As a woman, it scared me. As someone who uses social media and understands the somewhat limitless applications of technology, it scared me. After reading more, I became even more scared, and quadruple checked my privacy settings on all of my social media apps and then considered deleting all of my accounts because if this was happening now, who knows what could happen in the future. Why was I so freaked out? Because I learned about the “Girls Around Me” app (developed by Russian development company i-Free), which collects location data from Foursquare, shows local bars and restaurants where women had “checked in” and matches that info with their public Facebook profile–including photos and dating status.
The end result was that the user could essentially see how many women were in a particular location based off publically available information provided by social media, what they looked like, and what their names were. According to a comprehensive article published in the Atlantic, the “branding was crass… but, as the developers of the app argued, they had technically done nothing wrong aside from being piggish and crude.”
Thankfully, there was such a public outcry after this app hit the public domain that Facebook and Foursquare have blocked the app’s use of its APIs, claiming it violated its privacy policies. This forced the developer to pull Girls Around Me from the app store. Perhaps they saved some lives by doing so.
The Atlantic further suggests that “if violations like this continue, respecting the context in which data’s given might not just be a good privacy practice, it might become a good business practice.” And I couldn’t agree more.
So please think about things for a moment
Technology can do so much good—for women and men around the world—but we must respect the context in which information is presented as well as the intent of the presentation of such information. The fight for accountability for sexual violence committed against women in Syria will absolutely be enhanced by the mapping platform put out by the Women Under Siege’s project. Human rights in Syria will absolutely be better protected due to the Eyes on Syria platform. Don’t get me wrong–I am a huge supporter of these types of initiatives and encourage folks around the world to think about how they may enhance their goals.
It’s when I read about the scary things that people do with technology such as the company that put out the “Girls Around Me” app…that make me take a second to think about things, and I encourage you to do the same.
What information am I putting out there about myself that could put me at risk? What information are my friends putting out there about themselves that could put them at risk? And finally, how can we encourage all to respect the context in which we put out and use personal information? Because, well, it’s the appropriate thing to do—and at Amnesty we believe that first, you do no harm.
Follow me on Twitter @katiestriff