Tech is Unlocking Human Rights - Fast Forward

June 1, 2016 | Thoughts

Tech is Unlocking Human Rights

This past week our Executive Director, Shannon, hopped over the pond to Norway for the annual Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering of activists, entrepreneurs and global leaders for thought provoking discussions around advancing human rights. Here at Fast Forward, we’re always interested in how we can leverage tech and challenge structural norms to move social causes forward. It’s no surprise that the confluence of some of the most influential human rights leaders unveiled innovative solutions to unlocking the human potential that comes with freedom.

We’ve had the privilege to work with the likes of Google’s Jigsaw, Twitter, Benetech, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Anchor Free and Wickr to support the work of human rights activists. We’ve seen how social media amplifies human rights campaigns and serves as a fantastic platform to carry messages around town or across borders. But most compelling this year were the specific products and tools organizations and activists are creating to secure freedom of expression. Much of this work is high risk, but the potential for impact is astronomical.

We always say that the world’s toughest problems deserve the best technology. One of the most fascinating initiatives highlighted this past week combines high and low tech in effort to undermine totalitarian North Korea by exposing citizens to Western and South Korean pop culture. The method of delivery? Flash drive-carrying drones. Jung Gwang-il, Founder of No Chain, spoke at the conference about his experiences as a prisoner of North Korea and his collaboration with the Human Rights Foundation to seed change amidst the oppressive regime. Over the past 16 months the team has been hard at work orchestrating a commercial drone operation that brought over 1,000 USB drives containing movies, shows, music and Wikipedia access into completely offline North Korea. The goal is for this exposure to external media sources and insights to the “real world” to inspire citizens to take a stand. There have been many attempts over the years to smuggle information into the tightly controlled country, but helicopter drones are certainly the most high tech and effective method thus far. Jung sites Amazon as his inspiration.

“One USB key or SD card can influence hundreds of North Koreans and liberate them from the imposed ignorance that cripples critical thinking and perpetuates the power of the regime,” said Jung Gwang-il in a press statement. Fighting the oldest dictatorship in history with USB drives is a pretty powerful “David and Goliath” story.

Uncensored access to media and information was an ongoing theme this year. Emin Milli of Meydan.TV brought forth ideas on how he wants to expand his independent, open media platform to all closed societies. The Azerbaijani-based nonprofit media platform aims to improve access to information through eye-opening investigative journalism. However, voices of truth are silenced in Azerbaijan. Fifteen of Meydan.TV’s journalists are currently part of a criminal investigation by the government as a result of reporting on military casualties. Milli thinks this a result of the platform’s success in reaching millions with realistic coverage of life in Azerbaijan. Much of Meydan.TV’s success can be attributed to Milli’s tech-savvy approach which prioritizes the protection of sources and promotes the use of secure tools like the Tor Browser. The investigation is not hampering his efforts. In Oslo, Milli announced their plans to launch in other closed societies including Russia.

Another interesting tech nonprofit in the crowd was Transparency Toolkit, a US-based organization which collects surveillance and human rights data that can be freely accessed using their software. Designed with journalists and activists at its core, founder MC McGrath shared insights into their latest project ICWATCH, which scrapes LinkedIn and other open data sources to expose clandestine contractors. The tool collects and analyzes resumes from the intelligence community in effort to detect new surveillance initiatives by matching known codewords with messaging embedded in resumes. So far they’ve gathered over 27,000 resumes which can be accessed through their search program, LookingGlass.

Overall, we’re impressed. It’s exciting to see forward movement in the tech nonprofit ecosystem and strength in fearless innovation around the world.
What ways do you think tech could help shape human rights movements? Share your ideas in the comments section below!