Research Report: Exploring the Viability of a Human Rights Technology Research and Development Lab

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 contemplate more proactive approaches to technology planning and preparation.

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.

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

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

A summary of findings is provided below.

Download the report in pdf format.

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

Research framework

Our research was structured around consultations with a range of stakeholders from across the human rights technology sector. We sought to balance disciplines, roles, and geography in our engagement and discussions.

The study focused on whether there are both a need and a role for an R&D Lab that seeks to anticipate digital needs and digital threats on the longer road ahead, while also prototyping and developing appropriate solutions to address those needs and threats.

To the extent that such a need and role for a future-focused Lab was affirmed, the study also attempted to paint an initial picture of how such a venture could be chartered and instantiated.

Summary of findings

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 more 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.

Credits

Ford Foundation and Global Human Rights Program Officer Louis Bickford kindly provided their support to our study.

We express our gratitude to the interviewees who volunteered their knowledge and time to contribute their thoughts to our research.

  • Becky Kazansky, University of Amsterdam
  • Betsy Beaumont, Benetech
  • Bryan Nuñez, Open Society Foundations
  • Daniel Kahn Gillmor, American Civil Liberties Union
  • Danna Ingleton, Amnesty International
  • Fereidoon, ASL19
  • Harlo Holmes, Freedom of the Press Foundation
  • Isabela Bagueros, Tor Project
  • Mahsa Alimardani, Article 19/ Global Voices
  • Mallory Knodel, Association for Progressive Communications
  • Michael Carbone, Access Now/ Qubes
  • Niels ten Oever, Article 19

Research Report

The research report can be downloaded in pdf format.

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