The Panic Button: High-Tech Protection for Human Rights Investigators

BY Spencer Michels  March 25, 2011 at 5:35 PM EDT

There’s a panic button included in a software program provided by a Palo Alto, Calif.-based nonprofit called Benetech. The program itself is designed to safely store data about torture, murder, killings and other human rights abuses in countries around the world. It’s meant to help human rights workers who are collecting that information and use it to document what went on — or is going on — in nations run by brutal dictators who might eventually be brought to justice. Obviously, it could be used (and probably is) in Libya and other parts of the turmoil-filled Middle East.

The panic button is to use if you’ve collected data the government might not want the world to see, and if government troops or police are at your door about to bust in and steal your computer or its contents. You can delete all the data, and even the program itself with one keystroke, so the bad guys don’t even know you’re building a case against them. Benetech isn’t sure if anyone has ever pushed the panic button, but they do know that data has been lost, and later recovered. They provide the program for free, in several languages, and they say it’s being used in the Middle East — though they aren’t sure exactly where. Part of its allure is that human-rights workers can keep it secret and private, even from the people who provided them the software for free.

Meanwhile, the information you’ve gathered is stored “in the cloud” — that is on remote servers away from the action, and accessible only with a password and a secret “key.”

The data itself can help build a case against a regime, and in some cases may be as valuable as eyewitness testimony, proving documented patterns of unethical behavior by police or the leader himself. In Guatemala, which had a bloody civil war in the ’80s and ’90s, for example, Benetech’s program, called Martus, was used to help sift through a huge secret police archive that included records of people killed or disappeared. Two police officials were tried and convicted — so far — as a result of the information gathered by the software program, and analyzed by Benetech experts.

The founder of Benetech is a social entrepreneur and former rocket scientist named Jim Fruchterman, who got into human rights software in a roundabout way (actually starting by building machines that help the blind read) — as he explains:


Fuchterman: I think the problem I saw when I was thinking about starting a nonprofit tech company was if technology doesn’t make a lot of money, everyone’s trained to not do it. See, Silicon Valley’s all about making a lot of money with technology but what if this great technology that solves a really important social problem, and it’s not going to make anyone rich? So once you start thinking that way, and once we had the experience of making reading machines for the blind, I started thinking, well what else might there be? And within two years of starting the reading machine for the blind company, I saw this human rights problem and went, “ooh, I wonder what Silicon Valley could do to help with the human rights problem of essentially people getting massacred and no one knowing about it?”

Q: So what was your train of thought and your action after that?

Fuchterman: Well you know after reading about this massacre in El Salvador which sort of got me thinking, 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?” Could you come up with a defensive shield or something like that? And that’s not practical with today’s technology even if they could invent it. So I started thinking about what do human rights groups do? Well, all they do is process information. That’s the only asset of a human rights group is information about human rights violations. 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?

And that’s what Benetech does, through its Martus software.

The high-tech approach to human-rights abuses has become more common in the last five or six years. Social networking is given credit for facilitating the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and to some extent in Libya. Satellite photography is credited with discovering mass graves — the result of massacres — in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. DNA testing has allowed workers to identify bodies and to find relatives who were separated by war and forces beyond their control. And now Benetech’s software is coming into its own on the world scene.

Eric Stover, a longtime human rights researcher and writer, who directs the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, thinks such techniques — including software programs — have revolutionized his field, especially in an era when international courts have been set up to prosecute human rights violations:


Stover: If in Libya there were groups who had gone out and done a rigorous job of documenting each of the alleged killings that have taken place, if they were able to interview people who were around there who could say what’s policing it, or what army unit or military was engaged in that area, and then you’re able to take a street map, find out where the forces were moving in. If you can pull all of this data together, you have a stronger case of presenting this in, before the international criminal court, which is going to be investigating the killings in Libya. So a lot of the prosecutors in these courts are in fact relying on these organizations on the ground to collect evidence that is court admissible. Before the start of these international criminal courts, you didn’t necessarily have to have evidence that’s court admissible, but now you’re going to get challenged. So the stronger, the more rigorous the evidence you can collect the better off you are in actually achieving prosecutions.

Q: Now that kind of a court inquiry might not take place for five or 10 years. What about immediately? What about while Gadhafi may or may not be harassing his population. Any use for this technique in that?

Stover: Well, there’s the social-networking process that are being used by the demonstrators. If you recall in Iran when the young woman was killed in a back alley, somebody videoed it. Somebody had a cell phone and was able to capture that. And that went around the world. It was showing in real time it was taking place, and the reason that’s important is because there are less and less correspondents, journalists on the ground because of cutbacks in journalism, and newspapers and media outlets, and so now the reliance has to be on those local groups who are well trained in the documentation. Now it’s important though that that documentation is viewed and questioned and scrutinized to make sure it’s accurate. That there’s not any kind of manipulation and that has, that is something that has to be adhered to in the first place.

All this is far from theoretical. Prosecutions have already taken place — including that of Slobodan Milosevic — that rely on hard evidence gathered by high tech and analyzed by experts, who can testify in international courts. But even with the newly developed techniques, the human-rights abuses continue, provoking the turmoil that is enveloping the Middle East.