RightsCon Silicon Valley Conference Roundup

By Benetech, posted on

Last week, Benetech participated in the third annual RightsCon conference in San Francisco—which brought together tech executives, policy advocates, and security experts to examine ways in which the digital sector can be used to protect and expand the rights of people worldwide.

The program included multiple sessions with members of Benetech’s Human Rights team. VP Enrique Piracés participated in a discussion about the negative impact of unchecked surveillance on human rights documentarians and journalists, with Citizen Lab fellow Bill Marczak and EFF’s Eva Galperin. The consensus was that the long-term implications of state surveillance ultimately dissuade organizations from supporting the human rights movement and development of free media. Piracés called on citizens to demand greater insight into how governments use surveillance technology, and urged the human rights and journalistic community to “consider open source and end-to-end encryption as the baseline for their work.”

Piracés also presided a panel on encryption and securing the future of journalism, featuring Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm and Committee to Protect Journalists’ Geoffrey King. While surveillance technology is becoming cheaper and falling in the hands of many actors, Timm and King argued that journalists have a duty to protect their sources—emphatically stating that strong encryption has never been more critical.

In the tech demo room, Piracés and Benetech Human Rights Program Associate Collin Sullivan presented Benetech’s Martus software tool. Martus’ successful implementation and strong end-to-end encryption was well received among peer technoactivists.

Human Rights Project Manager Annie Wilkinson spoke on a powerful panel about the brave work of LGBTQ activists and the unique challenges they face every day. From the recent government crackdown on LGBTQ groups in Russia and the re-criminalization of homosexuality in India, human rights activists face threats from their governments, community, and sometimes their own family members.

Ugandan activist and Martus user Richard Lusimbo described his situation at home, where he is considered a criminal. Lusimbo underscored the importance of digital security strategies to improve online safety for activists, but stated that they should be tailored for each activist and country needs. For Lusimbo, Benetech’s training and capacity building exercises have proven most beneficial to safely storing and securing data for his organization, SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda).

Wilkinson supported Lusimbo’s argument by describing the need to train activists on technology, because “issues that continuously comes up [in the field are] those of adoption.” She concluded that, “security tools [often come] at the cost of convenience.”

Finally, Benetech CEO Jim Fruchterman moderated a panel about the use of prizes and challenges to identify new technologies for human rights organizations and journalists. He opened the discussion by focusing on an article published by Mulago Foundation’s Kevin Starr entitled “Dump the Prizes.” In the article, Starr argues that prizes and challenges do more harm than good, because, among other reasons, they are too costly for the applying NGOs, put too much emphasis on innovation and not nearly enough on implementation, and get too much wrong and too little right.

Speaking from a foundation perspective, Humanity United’s Michael Kleinman agreed with the premise of Starr’s argument and acknowledged donor-grantee power imbalances, but said that prizes are useful to foundations as a way to scope a field and meet new players beyond the typical NGOs. Michael Carbone from Access and Karen Naimer from Physicians for Human Rights agreed with Kleinman and recognized that there is a value-add for NGOs. Naimer expounded that not only did her experience applying for prizes result in more exposure and strategic partnerships, but it also helped her organization carry forward its ideas. She ultimately thanked Starr for providing a framework helpful for improving procedures down the line.