New technologies and the death penalty
This session discussed good technological practices, before looking at three services that offer users practical support.
Communication technologies offer numerous opportunities, to connect people, disseminate information and strengthen campaigning and operational capacity. They also present risks, because they can be used to monitor activists, collect sensitive information, and spread falsehoods. Governments and other actors may suppress access to communication technologies to prevent information from circulating or to hamper the work of organizations that criticize their policies.
When making use of communication technologies, it is therefore important to be clear about what users want, what the risks are, and who the target audience is; and to take technical considerations into account. These include the infrastructure used (cloud or in-house), internal capacity (human resources, maintenance and management), and choice of programmes (open source or licensed). It is essential to keep technologies updated, plan for the long term, and prioritize maintenance.
The speakers emphasized that users should not underestimate how difficult it is to stay on top of technological trends that constantly evolve. They advised users to adopt technology that is appropriate for their local situation and can be supported by the resources that are available. Some tools are designed for use in environments that lack resources and connectivity. Some programmes work better in areas with high connectivity. Users need to identify equipment and software that matches the resources they have and their needs.
Technology must be secure; security requires continued attention.
Social media use varies from place to place, so it is important to use apps that are locally popular. At the moment, use of videos is increasing.
When using online tools, “it is a constant challenge to get people to take action“. Online petitions can be effective; predrafted letters to decision makers may work. Always seek to make participation easy and efficient. Favour initiatives that require only a few clicks.
Technology must be secure; security requires continued attention.
Data must be protected: data collection should not be open-ended; data should only be collected for a specific purpose; and users should respect confidentiality (by securing prior informed consent before use).
VPN versus TOR?
When users need anonymity, they can choose between VPN systems (virtual private networks) and TOR networks (an acronym derived from ‘The Onion Router’). VPN is provided by an entity that has one hub, whereas a TOR network uses many hubs. VPNs create the illusion that information originates in a different location, enabling a user to access a private network or a streaming page that is blocked in his or her region, for example. VPNs provide some anonymity, but it is not impossible to trace information back to the sender. TOR networks are more secure and provide greater anonymity because they employ onion routing and multiple layers of encryption to ensure that those who receive messages cannot trace their source. However, to counter the dark web, some countries have made it illegal to use TOR. In such cases it is recommended to use a VPN in order to avoid legal trouble.
Connected Justice, Pakistan
In Pakistan 33 offences qualify for the death penalty. Around 320 people were executed last year and between 6,000 and 8,000 are held on death row, more than in any other country. To make matters worse, Pakistan’s justice system is opaque and inaccessible, and the country lacks lawyers with expertise in defending capital cases. “We were getting calls from all over the country to represent people who were facing execution.”
To address this issue, the Justice Project set up Connected Justice. The project uses an app to pair defendants with trained lawyers. Defendants complete a detailed questionnaire that covers their location and circumstances, the details of the case, the stage of the court process, etc.
Pakistan’s bar association has 30,000 members and is one of the largest in Asia. Many need work and training. Via the project, lawyers can build their capacity and experience, acquire paying or pro bono clients, and build their portfolios; in addition, it encourages them in the direction of human rights work. There are step by step instructions on what the lawyer needs to do. If a case is time-sensitive, the project requires lawyers to commit themselves to the case promptly. The app also includes letter templates for various petitions.
The primary aim is to provide clients with better access to trained lawyers. A secondary benefit is that the data aggregated by the project will provide a more complete picture, both of the needs of those who are accused and of human rights violations in Pakistan. On the basis of this information, better proposals for long term reform of the system can be developed.
The Justice Project is very conscious of server security and does not store client information inside Pakistan. Clients can lay complaints against their lawyers.
Addressing the concern that lawyers without experience would be attracted by the app, Sarah Belal said that the project plans to provide additional training for lawyers that will take account of the complexity of cases. This could mean that, before they take cases, lawyers will need to show they have certain qualifications.
Hatcher Group, USA
The Hatcher Group used social media to fight for abolition in Maryland, where “public opinion favoured the death penalty, but the issue of innocence has received an increasing focus… as it has in the US more generally”. Concerns about racial issues and unfair treatment have also grown.
The campaign was broad-based and a wide range of people contributed, including Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person in the US to be exonerated after receiving a death sentence. Maryland’s pro-repeal Governor, Martin O’Malley, was also supportive after he was elected in 2006. The 2010 elections created a majority for repeal in the General Assembly and by 2012 the campaign had all its arguments in line and was using social media extensively. At the time, it was novel to use social media to target the media and keep the governor and supporters focused. The campaign developed tweetathons, twitterbombs and tweetchats to create buzz and energy for the cause, and used Facebook to push out messages and increase turnout for events. It partnered with a range of organizations, including Amnesty International. In 2013 the campaign was successful: the bill was passed.
The Engine Room
The Engine Room is an international organization that helps human rights activists and organizations to use data and technology. Resource constraints are never a trivial challenge, but technology does not need to be fancy to be effective. “We have learned that it is about people and being committed.”
The Engine Room has developed a tool called Alidade, which assists users to choose the most appropriate tools. Alidade helps them to assess problems, select technology, identify what is out there, and find out who provides what. Organizations waste a lot of time unnecessarily building tools from scratch. Alidade helps users to take advantage of what is available and learn from past mistakes. It is designed for organizations that want a guide or planning document to show them how they can use technology to advance their work.
TAILS (The Amnesic Incognito Live System)
TAILS is a secure system built to support activists, journalists and whistleblowers. It uses a USB stick to start a computer using TAILS instead of the computer’s operating system. The USB runs the system, which is not stored or installed on the computer. TAILS is a digital security toolbox with secure defaults which is intended to protect the user’s privacy, avoid surveillance and censorship, and leave no trace behind on the computer. Online interactions are often tracked, and many files and activities leave digital tracks on computers that can be detected. Using TAILS can be useful if users are using sensitive data, are at risk of surveillance, or merely want to be anonymous.
The system employs TOR networks to avoid surveillance and uses Debian as the base operating system. Debian is a free and open source software that includes a depository of software and is supported by an active security team.
Challenges and recommendations
• Activists should constantly change tactics and try new things.
• Stay on top of technical changes.
• Match your technology to the local situation and available resources. Use apps that are locally popular.
• Pay attention to security.
• Respect principles of data protection.
• Use VPN to preserve anonymity if TOR networks are not legal in the country in which you are working.