TOPICS > Science

To Combat Human Rights Abuses, California Company Looks to Computer Code

March 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Spencer Michels reports on a California nonprofit using high-tech tools to document patterns of brutality and combat human rights abuses across the globe.
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JIM LEHRER: The turmoil in the Middle East has many fallouts. One is new attention on a high-tech tool being used to combat human rights abuses.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

(GUNFIRE)

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s nearly impossible to get accurate numbers of the killed, wounded, missing and tortured in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet, in the months to come, those statistics may prove crucial to finding out what really happened and bringing to justice those responsible.

Half-a-world away, in Palo Alto, Calif., the nonprofit Benetech Initiative has developed an easily downloadable software program to document atrocities and keep that data out of the hands of dictators and strongmen. It’s being used for free on the ground in the Middle East and elsewhere, says CEO Jim Fruchterman.

JIM FRUCHTERMAN, president, Benetech: Right now, human rights groups are collecting data in Libya, right? They’re trying to figure out these people who have maybe been killed and dragged away, right? Where are their — are their graves? And yes, we are definitely on tap for helping people collect that information, you know, both real-time, and also sort of reconstructing what’s happened, whether it’s in the weeks or the months immediately after the event.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fruchterman is a former rocket scientist turned social entrepreneur, who began seven for-profit start-ups in Silicon Valley, most of which failed. That included a privately financed rocket he had designed, which blew up just off the launchpad.

Nine years ago, he quit the for-profit world when a digital reading program he created for the blind didn’t make enough money for investors. He turned his idea, Bookshare, into a non-profit digital library that allows the disabled to access, via braille or the spoken word, 95,000 digitized books.

Revenue from that, plus grants and donations, help support Benetech’s human rights work, especially the development of software that is being used to hold ruthless governments accountable around the world.

JIM FRUCHTERMAN: I thought, well, how could you protect a bunch of essentially peasants in a rural village? And the first thought is, you know, what kind of high tech could you have? So, I started thinking about, what do human rights groups do? Well, all they do is process information. But no one writes software for them.

So, could we make tools to make the human rights movement more powerful by helping them do more with the information they have about human rights abuses?

PATRICK BALL, chief scientist, Benetech: Well, the beauty of this software is that all you have to do to encrypt it is to push save.

SPENCER MICHELS: Benetech’s software program, called Martus, can be easily used in the field, even by non-technical personnel. They download the program on a laptop and fill in the blanks to provide a database. It’s all automatically encrypted and stored in the cloud on remote servers away from prying eyes.

The data is accessible only by a secret code. Then, says Patrick Ball, chief scientist in the human rights program, Benetech helps analyze the data.

PATRICK BALL: We don’t catch bad guys. That’s the job of prosecutors. But once prosecutors are building a case about a crime of policy, not about who pulled the trigger, but who made the plans, then our statistical analysis provides a fundamental basis for the claim about policy, about a plan, about design, coordination and organization of mass violence.

SPENCER MICHELS: That was the case in Guatemala, where Benetech is playing a crucial role in helping local authorities make sense of an enormous secret archive of police documents found in an abandoned warehouse.

Human rights workers scanned a sampling of the 80 million documents, many of which provided direct evidence of people disappeared and killed during the country’s bloody civil war in the ’80s. And they used Benetech’s software and statistical analysis to find patterns of brutality.

JIM FRUCHTERMAN: More than 10 percent of those documents deal with a human rights violations. Last year, we were expert witnesses in the first trial as a result of that giant archive, and two police officers were convicted of disappearing a labor organizer 20 years before.

VIJAYA TRIPATHI, Benetech: You log into the Martus software using a username and password.

SPENCER MICHELS: Benetech trainers, like Vijaya Tripathi, teach colleagues how to protect information when computers are in danger of being stolen by troops or police, in countries where brutal dictators still are in power.

VIJAYA TRIPATHI: You can log into Martus and you can use what we call the panic button. You see, there are two different buttons here. The first is “delete my data,” and the second is “delete all data and remove Martus.”

We call these the panic buttons, because these are intended only to be used in a state of emergency, when you believe that paramilitaries are coming to your door.

SPENCER MICHELS: Eric Stover, who has uncovered human rights abuses around the world, directs the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley. He says high-tech tools, like the ones Benetech provides, are revolutionizing the field, and are especially useful in areas of armed conflict.

ERIC STOVER, Human Rights Center: There’s torture. There’s abuse of prisoners. There’s disappearance. There’s movement of populations, sexual violence. And this ability, with these new technologies, to gather information, to map it all in, and to understand it in — and be able to produce that and take that evidence to international criminal courts, is extremely valuable.

SPENCER MICHELS: That’s exactly what happened in the trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who was indicted for crimes against humanity committed in Kosovo in the late ’90s.

Stover recruited Patrick Ball to document and analyze why ethnic Albanian Kosovars were fleeing Kosovo at a time NATO was bombing Serb troops.

PATRICK BALL: Was the migration and mass killing in Kosovo the product of NATO’s bombing, of the Albanian guerrillas, or was it part of a systematic campaign by Yugoslav forces? That’s a critical question of fact, which statistics help us answer in a pretty definitive way. And that changes history forever.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ball’s testimony before an international war crimes tribunal was used by prosecutors to prove the intent of ethnic cleansing.

With an International Criminal Court now investigating possible crimes against humanity committed in Libya, Benetech believes its scientific analysis of data will be in high demand throughout the Middle East.