The Many Faces of the Martus User Community

By Benetech, posted on

Imagine you lived in place where you, or people you knew, were subject to abuse and violations of fundamental human rights, whether based on religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, political affiliation or for a range of other reasons. A key step in order to do something about it would be to collect and protect sensitive information about what was happening. You’d need a secure way to do so, for if the perpetrators or their accomplices found out about your efforts they’d want to gain access to that information, putting the safety of yourself and the victims and witnesses you’ve talked with in jeopardy.

This is a real and pressing need that human rights advocates, activists and other defenders face as they work to bring change to their communities. Often, their safety and success begins with information security. That’s where Benetech’s Human Rights Program comes in. We provide secure information management tools and training to empower defenders to carry out their work and stay safe while doing so. You can read more about our flagship tool, Martus, and the impact that Martus has had on human rights groups, from Africa to Burma to Guatemala.

Years of working closely with our Martus users have taught us that the projects our users pursue and the outcomes they are working towards can vary widely. In addition to large nonprofits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), our users include independent activists, local coalitions, members of small NGOs and many others. There is an incredible diversity within the Martus user community and wide spectrum of ways in which it uses Martus.

For example, many of our users are members of small groups whose goal is to engage in advocacy or raise awareness about various human rights issues affecting their communities. These issues include the abuse of children or sexual and domestic violence. Martus allows them to securely document the cases of abuse and share them with funders, the media or trusted officials, such as the United Nations, as needed. Unlike larger NGOs that typically work with thousands of records, these groups implement our Martus technology more anecdotally and engage in smaller-scale documentation projects.

Another set of our Martus partners is made up by relatively young organizations that have yet to figure out their strategy and long-term goals. They want to do something to fight the abuse that shatters lives in their communities, and know they need to document the stories of victims and witnesses until they can leverage them as evidence, but they don’t yet know the path they will take to achieve accountability or policy change. Groups we’re currently working with that are at this stage include those facing issues ranging from religiously based violence in Asia to election monitoring and women’s rights in various countries across Africa.

As a side note: Oftentimes, these groups not only need our secure Martus technology, they also ask for training on how to structure and manage a documentation project. That’s why our Field Team developed in-person training modules that, in addition to covering how to best use Martus, include digital information management, safety and documentation best practices.

Then there are organizations that benefit primarily from Martus’ signature security and reliability, regardless of any documentation work they might be doing. To explain this type of need, I actually think about the heartbreaking situations when organizations don’t use a tool like Martus. One example came from a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights-focused organization. In their country, the LGBT community faces a hostile social climate, negative attention from the media and even state-sanctioned harassment. It’s a place where LGBT organizers themselves are subject to intimidation and assault, including threats, arrests, theft of computer equipment, interception of communications and even physical violence.

Police raided the offices of this LGBT organization and confiscated its computers and organizational information—including part of its membership list that was stored in an insecure format. The Police then used that information to visit and harass members in their homes, in some cases outing them to their families and forcing some to go into temporary hiding. The good news is that this organization is currently working on moving its member list into a secure Martus database.

It’s this kind of story that makes it clearer why some of our users may only use Martus a few times—or even just once—to encrypt and backup highly sensitive information, like their membership list: Opposition forces may come and steal their computers, but with Martus—a system intentionally designed to ensure that others (including Benetech) do not have access to a user’s information—the opposition can’t get what they’re really looking for. And not only does the information stay safe and secure—the people referenced in the information do as well. When it’s safe to do so, the user can once again access the information that was securely saved to Martus servers.

As you can see, the people, groups and needs within the Martus user community are diverse. And with support from the U.S. government and private foundations Benetech continues to develop more and better security tools for these human rights actors, all around the world. However, because that support is project specific, we still need the help of individual donors—like you!—to increase our capacity to help organizations in a time of crisis. We rely on those core, unrestricted funds to help human rights defenders wherever and whenever they ask us for help.

So, if you’re inspired by these stories, we hope you consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our work. Your gift will allow us to help human rights defenders and advocates who are on the frontlines and urgently need the tools and training to protect their invaluable information—and stay safe.