Bezos Mobile Hack Spotlights Growing Threat for Human Rights Defenders

By Julianna Wright, posted on

With new revelations surrounding the hacking of Amazon founder, and Washington Post owner, Jeff Bezos’ phone, the growing pervasiveness of mobile hacking and surveillance tools has won national attention. This high profile case spotlights a threat that has been a major concern in the human rights realm for years. Hundreds of journalists, activists and other human rights defenders have been targeted by similar hacks (most recently a New York Times bureau chief). The regulation of these cyber arms drastically lags behind their development, and concerned by the unchecked dissemination of this malicious software, United Nations experts called for their own investigation into mobile hacking tools and “the growing role of surveillance in permitting the unaccountable use of spyware to intimidate journalists, human rights defenders and owners of media outlets”.

Digital Security is a Critical Concern in Human Rights Work

As the Bezos hack shows, even those who are at the helm of creating new technologies are vulnerable to digital security threats. Pursuing justice and accountability for human rights violations can be a dangerous undertaking. Human right defenders such as lawyers, journalists, and activists are often targeted by the oppressive powers that they challenge. A compromised device could not only put the owner at risk but also their colleagues and the witnesses and victims of abuses, with whom they are working to achieve justice.

A foundational step to increasing safety in the human rights realm is digital security training for human rights defenders. Traditionally, the most common ways to learn these best practices are reviewing dense manuals, or participation in intensive in-person training. Access to in-person training is limited due to the small number of people who can participate. Out of hundreds of applications only a few dozen individuals may be accepted to attend. While the few who are selected may bring this information back to their peers, there is no way to measure knowledge retention or dissemination.

How Benetech is Approaching Digital Security for Human Rights

An early pioneer of digital security for human rights with our Martus platform, which human rights investigators used to store digital documentation securely in the cloud, Benetech is partnering with experienced training organizations, to assess, evaluate, and improve the digital security training ecosystem.

We are developing a digital training game for human rights defenders in partnership with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. We created this game with the goal of providing an engaging and effective training experience that can be scaled to reach a large number of human rights defenders. The game teaches best practices in human rights monitoring and safety, including digital security. It provides a safe space for players to master key competencies and learn from mistakes, ensuring they remember and implement these best practices in their own work.

Beyond providing opportunities to learn about digital security for more human rights defenders, Benetech is also working to develop a digital security skills assessment, which can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of digital security training. Participants voluntarily sign up for the assessment at the time of training and will receive a series of tests six to nine months later. Without revealing that it is a simulation, the tests will be delivered via the existing digital platforms that they already use, simulating real digital security scenarios. The trainees and their organizations will receive the scores at the end of the assessment, which helps them evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the trainee’s digital security protocol.

A Call to Action

Investing in digital security education and tools for human rights groups is imperative to ensuring that organizations can deliver on their mission of achieving justice and accountability without causing harm to their staff or the victims they are defending. Interested in partnering with Benetech to improve digital security in the human rights arena? We want to hear from you.