The double-edged sword of Information and Communications Technology in the defence of human rights


(Geneva) – A Human Rights Council side-event was held on 19 June by the International Service for Human Rights and OHCHR on the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to protect human rights, and the human rights risks and challenges posed by such technologies. ISHR and others live tweeted with the #ICT4HR hashtag. ISHR provided live webcasting and the video will be available soon.

The event took place on the same day as the presentation to the Human Rights Council of the latest report (here in English, French, Spanish) by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, which focuses on the use of ICTs to secure the right to life.

Heyns highlighted during the event a key tension that arises from his report: that ICTs present both new possibilities and dangers in human rights protection. Positive advances include the unprecedented democratization of evidence-gathering. As a result:

Conversely, the abuse of those selfsame technologies by State and non-State actors is increasingly used to, for example, violate the right to privacy through widespread surveillance or to harass human rights defenders via anonymous intimidating SMSs.

Overwhelmingly, the panellists reiterated that ICTs provide powerful new tools to help HRDs document, expose and disseminate information about human rights violations, while equally exposing them to new threats and reprisals. Kelly Matheson, Senior program manager at Witness, noted for instance that Brazil has sent plain-clothed police officers into protests with cameras and lists of specific protestors they were assigned to record, particularly to capture images of their shoes, the item of clothing a HRD is least likely to switch during efforts to mask their identity. Maryam al-Khawaja, Co-Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights and an ISHR Board member, emphasised that governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated; instead of shutting down the internet to prevent the effective use of ICTs (which might attract global criticism), the governments of Syria and Bahrain, for example, slow the internet down to such an extent that many ICTs are rendered effectively useless.

One way to limit the countervailing effects of ICT abuse by governments, said Tanya O’Carroll, advisor to the Technology and Human Rights team at Amnesty International, is to regulate their sale:

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and others, for example, successfully filed a formal complaint to the OECD about the sale of surveillance products by EU companies to States which subsequently used them to commit human rights violations.

So pervasive are the new threats posed by the use of ICTs, said al-Khawaja, that online activists often face dangers equal to or greater than HRDs working ‘on the streets.’ Societies, therefore, should not minimise both the impact and consequences of so-called ‘clicktivism.’ After all, online information and communication is stored perpetually, opening the door to endless reprisals.

Given the countervailing use of ICTs by governments, Matheson highlighted that education and empowerment of HRDs on how to safely use ICTs, and cater them to different circumstances, is critical to their being useful tools for human rights protection. HRDs must feel empowered to decide, for example, when and how to mask the metadata of photos and videos when such data poses a risk of reprisal, while also being capacitated to use that data when useful for the purposes of evidential credibility. In that vein, digital security was identified by all panellists as a double-edged sword – far from an evidentiary silver bullet.

Indeed, O’Carroll emphasized that sometimes ICTs should not be used to record violations at all:

Further risks were identified by Josh Lyons, satellite imagery analyst with Human Rights Watch, who said that even tech-savvy HRDs who send photographs, audios or videos to NGOs, as evidence of violations, do not always do so securely, thereby exposing themselves to surveillance risks. Consequently, he advised that NGOs and human rights bodies adopt ethical usage policies:

Despite these dangers, the creative and effective new use of ICTs in defending human rights was undeniable. Lyons highlighted that Human Rights Watch researchers are using complex 3D-imaging technology and satellite imagery to determine the season and time of day when photographs and videos are shot, to assist in verifying their veracity. And panellist Falem McMahon, cyber investigator with the ICC Prosecutor’s Office, explained that

O’Carroll mentioned the positive use of new mobile technology assisting HRDs to manage their risks, like the Panic Button app, designed by Amnesty International in conjunction with HRDs and technologists. The app functions as an alarm to networks and partners in emergencies. O’Carroll, though, made clear that such apps are not human rights shields per se, reminding of the need for strong, organised and supportive HRD coalitions:

Ultimately, the event highlighted that both defenders and violators are often armed with the selfsame technologies. Their success in helping defend, and not violate, human rights is achieved when used responsibly, carefully and in a sophisticated way.


  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • United Nations
  • UN Human Rights Council