Technology touches almost every aspect of our daily lives. We can share our selfies and holiday pictures at the touch of a button, we can send and receive money without stepping foot in a bank and we can even have an entire meal and night-out without once leaving our table or interacting with another human being (thank you Wetherspoons app). In less rudimental terms, it has also expanded our access to opportunities – we can work from home, access healthcare and study for qualifications all from the small computers in our pockets. Technology is helping us become more resilient, more empowered and providing a world of opportunities at our fingertips.
Digital technology is a powerful tool for human rights, achieving transitional justice by enabling activists to organise and spread awareness to a wider audience, reconstructing economies through providing a new medium for work and improving access to life-saving and changing resources at the click of a button. It has the power to address and rebalance many societal challenges by tackling some of the world’s toughest environmental, social and political problems, and increasing resilience in local communities. However, rapid developments in AI, robotics and automation pose serious concerns about who will benefit and lose from the expansion of such technologies, and how they can impose on our human rights and the future of work. The mass collection of data can violate our right to privacy, the growing flexibility in the nature of work can negatively affect the livelihood of many and the growth in machinery in production can result in soaring inequality, downward pressure on wages and mass unemployment.
Despite this, the rise in #TechForGood and #SocialTech is undeniable, so here are three innovative ways that technology is improving resilience and maximising access to our human rights.
Digital Identity, Refugee Integration and Financial Inclusion
The World Bank predicts that there are over one billion people around the world unable to provide identification that proves who they are. Under the circumstances in which they are forced to flee their homes, refugees and asylum seekers are less likely to possess any form of identification from their country of origin. In situations of disaster, conflict and political turmoil, documents can be forgotten, lost, destroyed or stolen along the refugee route, and those who are fleeing due to the persecution often travel without documentation for their own safety. The ability to prove your identity is a core part in travelling across international borders, registering with authorities and humanitarian organisations, accessing healthcare and other services and connecting to the internet. The concept of digital identification has become such an important topic in the conversation on human rights, partially driven by the 2015 commitment of all countries under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to “provide a legal identity for all, including birth registration,'' by 2030 (SDG16.9).
Advances in digital technology and the introduction of biometric ID systems by governments are resulting in new methods of providing identification to forcibly displaced persons. Biometric ID allows a person to be identified and authenticated based upon a set of recognizable and verifiable data that is unique to them, such as retina scans, facial recognition or fingerprints. In the Kenyan refugee camp Dadaab, Blockchain platform BanQu is aiding displaced Somalis access financial products and other services by creating new ‘economic identities’.  BanQu enables individuals to upload photographs, details about their key characteristics and biometrics to a secure ledge as proof of their identity, and builds on this information by linking it with life events, financial transactions, government records and other important assets. It also allows users to connect with family members and friends to further aid in the verification of a person’s ID, assisting in the validation of this information and creating a secure and verified digital identity.
Looking to the future, the provision of digital ID that is officially recognised can facilitate the financial and economic inclusion of refugees, by enabling them to register SIM cards, open mobile money or bank accounts and access employment and education opportunities. Financial inclusion has the capacity to aid vulnerable groups, such as displaced persons, become more resilient to environmental and economic shocks. However, the collection and use of such personal data must be done in a way that protects from misuse or unauthorized disclosure, and ensures a person’s right to privacy is respected. The UNHCR recognizes that this is even more important for refugees, who are often escaping political turmoil and more vulnerable, which requires more considerations and a strong legal and regulatory framework
Social Media, Activism and Accountability
Whilst social media is one of the most important tools in any millennial or Gen Z’s toolkit, it also plays a vital role in elevating the voices of activists to call out human rights violations, hold governments accountable and achieve transitional justice. Across the world, governments recognise the growing power of social media, and often take extreme steps to restrict this, such as the Chinese government’s ban on popular social media sites and the subsequent development of state-monitored sites such as WeChat. It becomes one of the first methods of attack during times of upheaval, with social media blocks becoming more frequently implemented in protests, such as the January 2019 social media ban in Zimbabwe, the June ban in Sudan and the September ban in Egypt.
A prime example of the use of social media in holding higher powers accountable is the growth of the #MeToo campaign across the world. What was started by Tarana Burke on Myspace in 2006 ended up exposing wide-spread sexual-abuse allegations against senior Hollywood directors such as Harvey Weinstein. The hashtag ended up trending in at least 85 countries, prolifically in India, Pakistan and the UK, but more widely across South America, Africa and the Middle East. The ability to reach a wide audience in second, to speak out from the safety of your bedroom and the anonymity to join a movement of people campaigning for the same cause has created a spurt in social media activism and activists. Further to this, social media shrinks the information asymmetry between citizens and state, allowing global audiences to see first-hand footage that would otherwise be unreachable to them, and holding governments and individuals accountable for their behaviours. A recent example of social media as an accountability mechanism are the videos shared during the ongoing Hong Kong protests, showing authorities using excessive forces on protestors. These videos began circulating on Facebook, which resulted in global media attention that has condemned authorities’ action and called for an end to the violence.
The role of social media in achieving transitional justice has also grown in recent years, with increasing access to information of human rights abuses spurring NGOs and other non-profits to connect human rights abuse survivors to services that can aid them in their recovery and their fight for justice. It was social media that connected Khadija Siddiqi, a survivor of patriarchal violence in Pakistan, to human rights activist and lawyer Hassin Niazi, who got her attacker sentence to seven years imprisonment for attempted murder and launched a viral campaign to #FightLikeKhadija. Social media gave Khadija the resilience to pursue justice, the opportunity to find similar-minded people, and to open a dialogue about patriarchal violence. However, social media and the anonymity it brings also provides anonymous spaces that cultivate and reward toxic behaviour, seen with the increase of trolling, the growth in online communities dedicated to extreme groups (such as ‘incels’). The Muslim Rohingya community are a prime example of how social media can increase hate. For example we have seen the spread of hatred and discriminating comments across Facebook against the Rohingya community contributing to them fleeing Myanmar.
Satellites, Injustice and Disaster Response
Earth observation, and the use of satellites, plays a significant role in achieving most of the SDGs and achieving almost a quarter of all the targets. The use of satellite technology in humanitarian work has been historically underutilized until recent years, with a growing use in disaster response, relief and resilience building across the world. Natural disasters have impacted 3.5 billion people, costing approximately $1.9 trillion in economic losses since 2000, and have the potential to push nearly 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030. Emerging and developing economies are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters, as people often live in high risk locations such as urban slums and flood zones due to the lower cost and proximity to work. Small island nations, such as Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, are some of the most at risk countries, with their populations a few metres above sea level and rural communities struggling to access the satellite data. To combat this, an international initiative called CommonSensing is addressing this challenge, providing technical solutions and developing the in-country capacity to use these geospatial tools to build resilience, and better secure funding to mitigate climate change risks.
Whilst satellites are an excellent tool for disaster response, in the past decade their use has expanded to exposing human rights abuse and injustices across the world, giving an access-all-area pass to parts of the world with limited access or safety restrictions. Amnesty International used satellite technology to investigate an alleged attack by Boko Haram in 2015 in two North Eastern Nigerian villages, and managed to determine the destruction of 3,700 structures and support witness testimonies. Human rights organisations are now building committed teams trained in satellite technology to monitor global conflict and injustice, becoming a vital part of key human rights organisations research. However, due to the newness of the use of such technology, and often, images do not exist, either due to cloudy climates or inadequate provision of technology in certain regions of the world. This is slowly starting to change, with smaller companies starting to send microsatellites into space, moving towards having regular imaging of the earth to aid in improving resilience and increasing accountability for human rights injustice.
Technology advancements and the growth of the #TechForGood movement have the capacity to change the lives and boost the resilience of billions of individuals, families and communities for the better. Creating a framework of what #TechForGood really means, increasing the funding available for humanitarian tech and promoting public-private partnerships are essential in moving #TechForGood forward.
If you want to learn more about how tech can be used in human rights, or have your own ideas, why not sign up to our Human Rights Business Lab contest?
Contact: Geena Whiteman at email@example.com
 GSMA (2017). Refugees and Identity: Considerations for Mobile-Enabled Registration and Aid Delivery. GSMA M4D Working Paper
About the author
My name is Geena Whiteman, and I am a research assistant here at Oxford Brookes University in the Centre for Business, Society and Global Challenges. Most of my work has been in the Balkans, and my research focuses on post-conflict reconstruction and development, particularly how young people are rebuilding their futures under economic transition. My interest in human rights stems from my academic background in development economics, and fascination with the way private sector interventions can either alleviate or accentuate human rights abuses, dependent upon the motivations of the business.
Throughout the semester members of the student committee will take turns to write a blog. It might be about organising the Festival, it might be about something else they are doing in or away from Brookes, it might be thoughts on our theme of home. Check in regularly to find out!