From Silicon Valley to the Hill: Educating Policymakers about Strong Crypto and Human Rights

By Benetech, posted on

Legislative staffers appreciate hearing from Benetech in our role as a Silicon Valley technology-for-good pioneer. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to join Benetech CEO Jim Fruchterman and VP of Human Rights Enrique Piracés in Washington, DC, for a series of meetings with Congressional staffers to present Benetech’s Human Rights Program and its role supporting the global human rights community. We also briefed members of the press who were interested in learning about our human rights work.

We regularly hear about the cultural differences between Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. This trip was part of our regular effort to bridge this divide and educate Congressional committees about the use of technology in the human rights sector. Ultimately, we believe that the best policy solutions bring together all stakeholders, particularly those pursuing on-the-ground solutions.

As a nonprofit with a social mission, it is important to point out that Benetech develops technology not for technology’s sake, or for a profit, but to protect vulnerable populations. Many organizations, including humanitarian, health, journalism, and advocacy groups, are capturing more and more data about these populations. They are increasingly collecting, storing, and transferring personally identifiable information (PII), often in insecure ways.

Where does Benetech fit in? Benetech’s Human Rights Program adheres by the maxim to first do no harm. As we build tools that help these groups securely collect sensitive information about health, ethnicity, identity, refugee status, or experience with violence, we are committed to encrypt that information and avoid making our users and the people they serve targets by current or future governments. Additionally, through strategic communications and in collaboration with our major partners in the human rights sector, we publically support longer-term accountability mechanisms, such as legal proceedings or truth commissions. It is particularly important for us that policymakers understand this multipronged approach to our work. After all, technology for human rights only matters if it is actively used and espoused by the people we are meant to serve.

In this context, we highlighted our work in support of LGBTI rights-focused groups. Since 2011, our Human Rights team has helped increase the capacity of local human rights organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa to document violations perpetrated against LGBTI communities.

With this project, Benetech has made significant progress towards helping our partners develop a culture of systematic fact-finding and evidence-based documentation and advocacy work using secure technology tools. We have increased the capacity of local organizations to sustain independent human rights documentation initiatives in Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Eight of our partner groups now have secure documentation systems in place using Benetech’s Martus technology and have documented several hundreds of abuses and other incidents against LGBTI people. Furthermore, nine partners across all four countries are about to release their first-ever evidence-based publications about violations in their communities.

This project demonstrates the benefits of making technology applications suitable and relevant to the lives of the world’s underprivileged communities. If such solutions are translated into policy and legislative action, they can help create lasting social impact. Benetech is therefore looking forward to continuing to bring our unique perspective to bear in legislative discussions, so as to advance policies that best help the communities that we serve. Human rights transcend political affiliations, which is why we’re working with bipartisan stakeholders, helping them realize their shared commitment to global human rights.