Doing the Right Stuff Right for Human Rights

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post

In December 1981 soldiers of the Salvadoran Army’s Atlacatl Battalion entered the village of El Mozote, where they murdered hundreds of men, women and children. Although reports of the massacre appeared in the United States, Salvadoran army and government leaders denied them and, all too soon, El Mozote was forgotten.

It wasn’t until 1993, when a reconstruction of these events by American journalist Mark Danner first appeared in The New Yorker, that the full story of the El Mozote massacre was brought to light and sent shock waves through the international community. I was aghast that it could take a dozen years for the world to believe the massacre had happened. The tough question that ran through my mind was: How can we as technologists in Silicon Valley help prevent this kind of atrocity?

Photo of Benetech's CEO Jim Fruchterman addressing attendees at a panel celebrating Martus' 10th Anniversary, Nov 6, 2013, Palo Alto, CA.
Delivering my opening remarks at the Martus' 10th Anniversary
A decade later, in 2003, Benetech—the nonprofit tech company I founded and lead—launched our Human Rights Program to address this very question. The human rights technology we eventually built and that anchors our Program—Martus—has since played a crucial role in strengthening the human rights community. A free, open source software application that allows users anywhere in the world to securely gather and organize information about human rights violations, Martus enables human rights defenders on the front lines of fighting abuse to stay safe and protects the identities of those who would face violence and repression for telling their stories.

Earlier this month, on November 6th, jointly with Human Rights Watch and WITNESS, we celebrated Martus’ 10th Anniversary—ten years of secure human rights documentation by the Martus user community. The Martus story that has unfolded during that time is a tale of hard-won success and focused efforts to bridge human rights and technological innovation. To help you understand it better, let me pick it up where I left off, back in 1993.

On a hike in the hills above Stanford that year, my friend Dave Ross and I brainstormed what could be done to ensure that no human rights abuse would go unnoticed. Being geeks, we thought of ways to address this challenge with technology. We realized that the most effective tool to fight human rights abuse was the truth. If we could get the stories of abuse to the right people, quickly and reliably, we would help human rights defenders fight impunity and advance justice. We called this idea Witness and, geeks that we were, immediately grabbed the domain name.

Photo of panelists Enrique Piracés (Benetech), Iain Levine (Human Rights Watch) and Sam Gregory (WITNESS) at a panel on the future of human rights celebrating Martus 10th Anniversary, Nov 6, 2013, Palo Alto, CA.
From left to right: panelists Enrique Piracés, Iain Levine
and Sam Gregory
As I went around talking to human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, however, I learned there already was a Witness project in the human rights field. Dave suggested we rename our idea Martus, the Greek word for “witness.” We did just that and handed the domain over to what is now WITNESS.

Our breakthrough in the conception of Martus came in 2000, when I was looking to expand Benetech to new frontiers of social good beyond our origins—helping disabled people access books in what is now our Global Literacy program. Early that year I met Dr. Patrick Ball—then of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—one of the world’s leading human rights statisticians. Patrick provided me with a profound analysis of the human rights sector that formed the basis for what would turn into the Martus initiative. He went on to become Benetech’s Vice President of Human Rights and led our human rights work for nine years. He is now the Executive Director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which earlier this year spun off from Benetech to become its own independent organization.

Through Patrick’s analysis and our conversations with human rights groups around the world, we learned that the human rights sector—albeit being an information processing industry—used information technology nowhere near full potential and that human rights fieldworkers were the least served with information technology. Patrick described the field as a pyramid, with grassroots groups on the front lines at the base, gathering the stories of abuses first and second-hand, with larger and larger groups going up until you reached the top of the pyramid with the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Beyond those top organizations, almost no groups had good technology designed for human rights documentation. Front-line human rights defenders needed a way to securely gather, protect and comprehend first-hand accounts of violations in their communities.

Here, we realized, was an opportunity to create real, lasting social impact. If we could create a human rights information management tool to address the needs of a community that didn’t have a technology solution at all—now that was worth doing! Martus, we decided, would be that tool.

Photo of audience at a panel discussion on the future of human rights technology celebrating Martus' 10th Anniversary, Nov 6, 2013, Palo Alto, CA.
Our audience at the panel on the future of human rights
technology celebrating Martus' 10th Anniversary
From the outset, we were determined to make strong security Martus’ signature feature. Other features and benefits might have been easier to build and market, but we decided to focus on doing the right thing where we could maximize impact at the service of the human rights community. Our inside joke is that we seem to be the Silicon Valley company that hasn’t yet been knowingly cracked or coopted by the NSA. Luckily, we seem to be too small, and our human rights activist users don’t seem to be a top priority for them! But, we still have to protect our users from attacks from many repressive governments around the world.

We learned some tough lessons along the way: for example, that technology alone is no panacea for human rights abuse, or that we had to support the deployment of our technology with global trainings on Martus as well as with human rights documentation and capacity-building trainings.

Ten years later, our strategy has proven its worth and Martus is an initiative that captures the essence of Benetech’s focus on creating positive social change through technology and on doing the right stuff right—two of the Seven Benetech Truths.

Having pioneered the idea of making strong security accessible to human rights practitioners, we helped dramatically change the way in which human rights work is done. You can read more about Martus and about our theory of change, but here’s the gist: with Martus, there’s no more reason to collect, transmit or store sensitive information about violations in vulnerable forms such as paper files and unencrypted hard drives. No more reason why we would lose invaluable human rights information to accident, confiscation, misuse or simply to natural elements.

Over the past ten years, members of the Martus user community have collectively stored hundreds of thousands of records of abuse and secured them with Martus’ properly implemented strong encryption. Our Martus Field Team has trained hundreds of human rights groups and individuals, in over 40 countries, on Martus use and human rights documentation best practices. In many cases, Martus also helped users turn those first-hand accounts into evidence of abuse in order to advance their causes. You can read more about the many faces of the Martus user community and the impact that Martus has had on human rights groups, from Africa to Burma to Guatemala.

Photo of panelists Enrique Piracés (Benetech), Iain Levine (Human Rights Watch) and Sam Gregory (WITNESS) with moderator Stephan Sonnenberg (Sanford Law School) at a panel celebrating Martus 10th Anniversary, Nov 6, 2013, Palo Alto, CA.
From left to right: panelists Enrique Piracés, Iain Levine and
Sam Gregory with moderator Stephan Sonnenberg
Martus’ 10th Anniversary provides us with an opportunity to take stock and think forward. To that end, we co-hosted a panel discussion on the future of human rights technology jointly with Human Rights Watch and WITNESS. Our panel featured Enrique Piracés, Benetech Vice President of Human Rights, Iain Levine, Human Rights Watch Deputy Executive Director, and Sam Gregory, WITNESS Program Director. The moderator was Stephan Sonnenberg, Clinical Supervising Attorney and Lecturer in Law at the Stanford Law School. We see this panel as the beginning of an ongoing conversation about the challenges and opportunities for human rights technology.

I’d like to thank our panelists and moderator, everyone who has participated at the event (on site or remotely by sending questions and comments), and our users, partners and supporters throughout the years who have made Martus possible. As our panelists pointed out, technology offers great opportunities for the human rights movement but also creates enormous challenges. With more and more people participating in human rights documentation, it’s critical to get the tools and skills in their hands to do it safely, ethically and effectively. At Benetech, we’re expanding our commitment to human rights practitioners and moving forward with our multi-year project of building the next generation of the Martus technology with new funding and enhanced tools, including a mobile application. I invite you to check back on our website for ongoing updates about our work.

Photo credits: Rom Srinivasan and Patrick Ball.


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