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The ASIL annual meeting is an intellectual feast for hardcore international law geeks, but the panel on designing technology for human rights offered something different: tech geeks. The talk was of metadata, apps, cyberwarfare, and social media; the focus was resolutely forward-looking, and the ideas were cutting-edge.
The first panelist, Prof. Laura K. Donahue, spoke about surveillance; the second, Prof. Dan Saxon, spoke about autonomous weaponry and artificial intelligence. Nathanial Freitas, a tech developer, described his efforts to create software to support the work of human rights activists. Jay Aronson, of Carnegie Mellon University, explored the evidentiary opportunities and challenges posed by the hundreds of thousands of videos—some showing war crimes and human rights violations—that have been posted online from Syria during the ongoing conflict there.
The tone of the panel was cautiously optimistic, with a dash of gee whiz. Rather than wring their hands over the danger that pervasive modern surveillance poses to the right of privacy, or that drone warfare poses to the fundamental right to life, the panelists touted the advantages of encryption and sang the praises of social media. They discussed the work that they and other have done to take advantage of new technologies, and to bring their benefits to the human rights field. As the moderator, Prof. Molly Land, explained at the outset, the challenge is to harness continuing technological developments so that they are used to advance human rights.
Yet if recent years have shown tech’s enormous benefits, they have also demonstrated its risks. Near the end of the discussion, Professor Land offered up another, more equivocal observation: that perhaps what makes technology useful for human rights purposes is also what makes it a danger to human rights.
Joanne Mariner is a human rights lawyer based in London. Follow her on Twitter at @jgmariner.