Is there a long term strategy in human rights technology?

Over the past decade, Aspiration has worked with a range of partners and allies across the human rights sector on a wide spectrum of technology projects and events.

During that time, we have observed a recurring dynamic. Most human rights technology efforts—whether responding to an incident and mitigating a specific threat, working on technology features and usability, or doing evaluation and risk assessment—tend to focus on short-term horizons and/or be reactive in nature.

This led us to consider how stakeholders in the sector might make use of more proactive approaches to technology planning and preparation.

The Ford Foundation generously funded this research and the subsequent report.

We are deeply grateful to the interviewees who contributed their knowledge to this research.

Exploring the viability of a Research & Development Lab for Human Rights Technology

One concept that has surfaced in a number of conversations is a long-term "Research and Development Lab" (R&D Lab) for Human Rights Technology.

We decided to employ this concept as a lens through which to explore how such an enterprise might create new space and opportunities for stakeholders across the field to strengthen digital security capacity and operate more sustainably in their ongoing programmatic work.

Building on this concept, we designed the framework of a study focusing on whether there are both a need and a role for an R&D Lab in this ecosystem.

The idea was strictly conceptual and was utilized with the aim to drive a cross-field and forward-looking discussion. To conduct the investigation, we consulted with a range of stakeholders operating across the sector in different disciplines, roles, and geography.

To guide us through the interviews, the venture was described as aiming to:

  • Model potential future threats and adversaries and their capabilities;
  • Anticipate tool, process, and capacity needs NGOs and other human rights stakeholders will face; and
  • Model how actions we take in the present and near-term may eventually have adverse or unanticipated consequences.

Our research worked towards envisioning the foundation of an innovation center, operating in the long term, with a proactive approach to technology and scenario modeling.

We also aimed to gather reflections and feedback on the possible forms and focus areas such a Lab might take on.

The research did not aim to be a comprehensive investigation, and we engaged the pool of practitioners as a representative sampling.

It is a snapshot of what our selected group of stakeholders prioritized in their thinking at the time of the interviews. Power, threats, and rulings shift and change continuously, and themes that might have not emerged prominently in the conversations we had only a few months ago could be front and center today.

In any case, we believe the insights gathered could be useful to many interested in starting a conversation about the opportunities and impediments lying ahead for the human rights technology sector.

What we explored

We invited the interviewees to share their input on two main themes: general aspects of longer-term thinking applied to the context of human rights technology and the more specific Research and Development Lab concept.

Exploring the general idea of a long-term horizon outlook on the sector allowed us to inquire into:

  • Reflections on the meaning of a long-term effort in the human rights technology space,
  • Thoughts on long-term approaches currently present in the field,
  • Questions to address regarding the future state of play, and
  • Considerations about actions that could help anticipate future contexts.

Evaluating the viability of a Human Rights Technology Research and Development Lab proved to be a multifaceted endeavor.

While sharing reflections and questions on the viability of the project, our interlocutors also provided more specific considerations about the project's framework. In particular, their observations focused on:

  • Guiding and foundational principles,
  • Strategic focal points,
  • Programmatic design principles,
  • Governance and operations,
  • Ongoing learnings and dissemination of findings,
  • Possible impact scenarios,
  • Specific technology research areas, and
  • Unresolved questions.

What we learned

The stakeholders we interviewed widely agreed that taking a forward-looking and proactive approach to human rights technology would better enable modeling of future states of play.

Moreover, the reflections gathered through the study highlighted a need and a mandate for a future-focused research and development undertaking within the sector. A number of key objectives were identified for such an endeavor to address in order to most efficiently meet and support the needs of human rights organizations globally.

These included:

  • Supporting the development and prototyping of holistic organizational security trainings.
  • Creating the opportunity for multidisciplinary and critical analyses of the dynamics occurring between power and technology.
  • Improving the development and accessibility of encrypted email and more secure mobile communications.
  • Prototyping secure tools for multi-party communications and real-time collaboration.
  • Prototyping secure first-contact digital solutions.
  • Supporting the development of increasingly secure solutions to browse the internet anonymously on desktop and mobile.
  • Divorcing identity and location from telephony and routing.
  • Supporting the development of secure open source operating systems.
  • Researching and prototyping more secure hardware.
  • Supporting the development of increasingly secure whistleblowing platforms.

Our interviewees also identified a few questions which remained unsolved.

In particular, these regarded:

  • Scoping a time horizon and defining a prioritized remit for any research and development effort.
  • Identifying an inclusive, transparent, and accountable governance model under which to manage its operations.
  • Establishing the financial and legal identity of such an endeavor, and ensuring its sustainability over time.

Overall, the concept was well-received by those with whom we spoke, and all those consulted tended to agree on the potential for the initiative to have a tangible and pervasive impact.

At the same time, it is clear that considering the actual opportunity to bring this project into existence would require more extensive research, in order for its scope and terms to be identified in greater detail and thoroughly outlined.

Defining an informed and meaningful proof of concept would require conducting further analysis of governance and sustainability models, engaging the communities working on the focus areas that have emerged to date, and further exploring the opportunities and challenges experienced by the stakeholders operating across the ecosystem.

Read more about it

We invite you to look at the report, and we welcome your feedback.

We are grateful to the Ford Foundation for supporting this project and to the interviewees for contributing their knowledge and time.

This research was realized within our Human Rights Technology program, and we are eager to contribute to further opportunities to explore the future of human rights technology.

If you would like to share thoughts on the research or propose projects on which we could collaborate to move the discussion forward, please feel free to contact us at info@aspirationtech.org.

The report is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International (CCBY-SA 4.0) license.