Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Quiet Revolution

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Quiet Revolution

Article excerpt

From Guatemala to Kosovo, human rights groups have taken a page out of a spy thriller by learning the art of encryption

A quiet revolution is creeping through human rights groups around the world. Don't expect to see noisy marches through the streets of Guatemala or angry protests in Kosovo, though both places are hotspots in the transformation. The revolution is running through electronic ether and human grey matter.

Computer technology, and particularly cryptography software (which uses secret codes to transform data into a stream of seemingly random characters), is subtly changing the balance of power between repressive governments and the human rights groups that watch them. From Cambodia to El Salvador, grassroots human rights organizations are embracing software that allows them to track government abuses and then hide their data in order to protect sources.

A driving force in this revolution is Dr. Patrick Ball, deputy director of the science and human rights program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). For the past nine years, Ball has been discreetly travelling in the wake of wars and insurrections to train human rights workers in the science of information gathering. He has shaped and protected databases in places such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Ethiopia, Albania, Kosovo and South Africa, among others.

Crucial testimony under lock and key

When Ball first began this training in the early 1990s, most human rights workers were technophobes. Technology, used for so long as a tool of spying by repressive governments, was clearly the enemy. Every project was tough work, as Ball tried to convince people in the field to adopt increasingly cheap computer software as a means of deftly turning the tables on governments. About three years ago however, the climate began to change.

"Human rights groups are beginning to recognize the tremendous analytic power large-scale data brings to us and you simply cannot do that without technology," says Ball. While visiting groups in Cambodia who were learning to use this technology, I was struck by the enormous piles of paper on every desk. It could take two weeks to extract one simple figure, such as how many rapes were reported in Cambodia in a month.

Cheap computers and, more importantly, easy-to-use software programmes are changing that, says Ball. Database, spreadsheet, word processing and communications programmes have made it possible for even small organizations to track abuses with scientific rigour.

This analytic precision makes a powerful weapon. It also makes a logical target for political opponents. Witnesses often risk life and limb when they come forward to report an abuse committed by the government. As a result, "human rights groups are using cryptography in the field to secure databases, investigations, field reports and witness identities--all data that might put somebody's security or liberty at risk," Ball says.

In fact, encryption played a key role in breaking the silence born from 36 years of terror and civil war in Guatemala, which killed more than 100,000 people, most of them Mayan Indians. Until recently, most Guatemalans would have been shocked by the fact that the following testimony was publicly documented: "My sister went shopping in Rabinal, but when she got to the hamlet of Plan de Sanchez the army was already there. There they grabbed her and raped her in a house. There were fifteen girls raped and then they were riddled with bullets. Afterwards, they were buried by the people in a clandestine cemetery."

New flashpoints in the crypto-wars

This personal account, from a report by AAAS and the International Center for Human Rights Research (CIIDH) in Guatemala City, was one of many given by witnesses who wanted their names kept secret for fear of retribution. The CIIDH and several partner organizations gathered more than 5,000 testimonies between 1994 and 1995. …

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