How Amnesty International Aims to Bring Technology and Human Rights Together

Technologies will advance and take hold long before our governments and laws are ready for them. To keep up with the needs of billions of people around the world, it’s important to balance technical savvy, public governance, and innovation.

Amnesty International is one of Singularity University’s newest partners in the mission to positively impact one billion lives. I spoke to their Deputy Director of Global Issues Sherif Elsayed-Ali about the role of exponentials and the people working with or inventing the new technologies that will continue to shrink our world and give power to more members in the global community.

Elsayed-Ali says founders and inventors should engage with people working on human rights issues. He encourages everyone to “talk to them because there might be many ways in which inventions or products could be used to help others that may not be directly obvious.”

To that end, his organization is already augmenting its human rights movement through the use of virtual reality, immersive online communities, and open source personal security apps.

Read the full interview below.

Amnesty International is now harnessing the power of virtual reality, interactive and immersive online tools, and open source apps such as Panic Button. Do you believe that tools such as VR can give the power to the crowd to redesign a democratized world?

Virtual reality is very promising in how it could be used to give people a more direct experience of human rights issues and problems. It provides a more concrete experience of what others may be going through and helps us imagine what a better world could be by respecting human rights, ensuring justice, and protecting people’s freedom.

Juxtaposing what is happening now versus what could be happening—what could be the better alternative—that could be a very powerful way of spurring change.

Looking at current events, the Syrian refugee crisis makes it clear governments are no longer responsible for their citizens alone. How are the roles of government evolving?

As a species, as a planet, our system of accountability relies on us working together across countries, across continents to make sure not only that our planet is still livable but also is a system that is sustainable and isn’t built on very deep inequalities across the world.

How do you think we’ll reframe the role of government in the future?

Governments unfortunately misuse the idea of security as an excuse to, in some cases, crush dissent and move political agendas. It’s a very easy thing to react to, when you’re constantly stocking up fear of other people and fear of foreigners, refugees, people of other races. There’s a very false dichotomy that human rights and freedoms stand on one end and security on the other end. Of course, people need security that [their] physical integrity will not be violated. You can’t have a blogger being lashed for what they’re saying. That’s not security.

Governments are facing a difficult balancing act between human rights and technology. How can they use technology to provide security without abusing human rights?

So much of our governments’ roles at the moment are about about policing the people. Technology can have fantastic uses but also can be used for the wrong reasons.

The responsibility of governments, as representatives of their people, is to make sure things are not happening in secrecy. Some secrecy may be needed for a particular reason, but this should not be the general rule; the general rule should be transparency. And accountability always has to be there regardless of secrecy.

With democratized access to technology we see the real power of the individual and the risks of wielding that power. One example is Edward Snowden, who I consider an exile of conscience. What can companies, new startups, and founders do to take a stand in defiance of abusive governmental requests for data?

Edward Snowden is a human rights champion. As a whistleblower, he took immense personal risk to expose something that’s been kept secret not only from the citizens of the United States, but also from the people of the United Kingdom. It takes a lot of courage to do that, and the difference now [from] two and a half years ago is tremendous. [There is now] public debate around these issues, around surveillance, around what we should expect regarding the role of our governments in the internet age.

The role of the private sector to push back when they are presented with requests that seem to violate human rights is incredibly important, as [they are] providers and inventors of technology and services. Companies have an interest in improving these services, asking [themselves] at the outset of the development of [their] technology, “How could this be used incorrectly, and how do we avoid that?” The protection of people’s rights is closely related to the trust consumers have in products. Without trust it’s very difficult to continue with a democratized version of our world.

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Erika Barraza
Erika Barraza
Erika works on Singularity University's impact team and is driven to provide all people with the resources they need to thrive. You can often find her on an adventure meeting new people, enjoying the oceans, and building her empathy muscles.
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