Martus Sunset

By Collin Sullivan, posted on

15 years supporting safety and security for human rights defenders

Martus, the original end-to-end encrypted software for human rights data collection, has empowered human rights defenders for 15 years. It was a groundbreaking platform, enabling structured information management, cloud backup, and client-side end-to-end encryption, and we’re proud of the safety and support it has provided to human rights defenders across the world since 2003. So it is with heavy hearts that we announce that Benetech has ceased further Martus development. Current Martus users can continue to reach out to us in the coming months for support. The Martus backup server will remain available for use. We are committed to our users and partners, and we will work to suggest relevant options and help catalyze a broader conversation about addressing gaps in the ecosystem.

Transitioning away from Martus development is not a decision we arrived at easily. After more than 15 years of active development, updates, improvements, successes, challenges, trainings, support, and the inputs of users across the human rights community, we continue to see the need for such a system. However, Martus has already surpassed most reasonable expectations for software longevity despite being in a resource-constrained environment. Given current technical requirements, we do not believe it is responsible or practical to move forward on this platform.

Our Human Rights team will be glad to answer questions about risks associated with continued use of the Martus platform as we encourage users to make the best decisions for themselves, their data, and their communities, and the role Martus may or may not play in their continued documentation activities. While we are not currently aware of existing vulnerabilities that could affect Martus-encrypted human rights data, there may be unknown vulnerabilities or yet-to-be-developed attacks that could dramatically affect the security of Martus in ways that may be invisible to the user. Since some Martus server components are no longer supported by the provider, system data, such as IP addresses, may be exposed in an attack. Please contact us at martus@benetech.org with questions or concerns.

Collin training 2 human rights defenders on Martus

More Than a Decade of Human Rights Service

When Martus was initially released, it set out to support and protect those doing the risky human rights work on the ground. We are proud of the ways it has helped human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and researchers protect themselves and the people and communities they support.

In a time before the ubiquity of cloud storage services, from its inception Martus offered free, reliable, remote collection and backup of human rights data. It also did so in a way that remained ethically defensible more than ten years later when the Edward Snowden revelations led many to question the privacy practices of the common mainstream cloud and remote backup services.  End-to-end encryption is now increasingly a best practice when human rights defenders and journalists are communicating sensitive information.

From our earliest work in Guatemala, we have built strong relationships with human rights defenders all over the world through Martus trainings and strategic partnerships. We have seen how people put their trust in Martus and had that trust rewarded: activists burning paper files after receiving word of a coming inquisition, knowing the data were safely encrypted on their laptops and copied to a server thousands of miles away; police raids that ended with office computers being confiscated and people arrested, only to have the data safely retrieved on new machines soon thereafter; users implementing a Martus-on-Tails scheme to make their work more difficult to target and compromise.

These stories come from partners around the world including Central and South America, Central and Eastern Europe, Eastern and Southern Africa, and Central and Southeast Asia. Their contexts are vastly different, their work and personalities diverse. But they have all shared a need for an as-secure-as-is-practical way to organize and share their sensitive data.

A New World, Same as the Old World

While the world has largely changed, that need has not. Human rights documentation in 2018 looks remarkably different than it did in 2003. Social media, smartphones, and more widespread internet access has invited into the human rights space millions of people who likely don’t self-identify as human rights defenders. When a person takes video of police harassment at a polling place and posts it to YouTube, she is documenting a human rights abuse. Human rights data collection is no longer exclusive to interviewers with clipboards and voice recorders but is as ubiquitous as the technology that supports it.

And still, the people with clipboards—who may well be archiving and analyzing those YouTube videos, too—face daily prospects of office raids. This can include technically sophisticated and difficult-to-detect attacks like mass- and targeted-surveillance or remote compromise of their computers and phones. Human rights defenders remain at tremendous risk.

So the need for something like Martus has not disappeared—far from it. Rather, it has become more developed, more robust. The need for larger-scale video management and analysis tools has emerged as open source investigative methods have become more prominent in human rights work. Real-time collaboration has become an expectation through the prominence and ease of use of tools such as Google Docs, and enabling this while also offering strong privacy and security protections remains an unsolved problem (though with encouraging recent developments). Building a more useful and relevant toolset for these modern realities is technically feasible, but it must be architected appropriately for the task. Sustainability in today’s funding environment is also a serious consideration. The funding landscape that allowed Benetech to maintain a level of Martus sustainability over many years, with significant challenges along the way, has gotten less friendly to such solutions.

A Way Forward

We are beginning to coordinate a series of community conversations to identify needs and gaps around human rights documentation, existing tools and creative solutions that have been working for human rights defenders, and opportunities and challenges for new solutions to address the gaps. If you would like to be a part of these conversations, please contact us.

The Benetech Human Rights Program has never solely focused on Martus, and we will continue to provide strategic and technological support to the human rights community. We are currently working on projects related to improving the process of collecting, protecting, processing, and organizing video from active conflict areas, collaboration around open source investigation data, and applying our expertise to other emerging technical problems in the field.  We will also continue to act as a bridge between Silicon Valley tool developers and service providers and the human rights defenders who rely on their services for their work.

We want to acknowledge the brilliant work of the Benetech team that conceived of, developed and steadily improved Martus over the past 15 years.  We are deeply grateful for the partnerships and friendships we’ve made through the Martus community. We look forward to building upon those while embracing new ones. Here’s to building a better future for human rights together.