The Digital Forensics Team Fighting for Human Rights

By Anna Codrea-Rado, Contributor

Since August 2017, an estimated 700,000 members of the Rohingya community have fled Myanmar to escape ethnic persecution. While persecution of the Rohingya people dates back years, what is beginning to emerge about the current crisis is the role social media platforms have played in spreading hateful messages and fueling violence.

In a groundbreaking investigation called “Hatebook,” Thomson Reuters found that Facebook has failed to combat hate speech directed at the Rohingya people, finding over 1,000 examples of posts attacking the Rohingya on the social platform. To deliver the report, Reuters worked in partnership with the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law. Alongside a team of researchers, students, and human rights specialists, Hatebook contributors used emerging technologies to investigate the digitally-motivated crimes.

Still, while the findings from the report are grim, the technology involved in detecting these abuses is proving to be the opposite.

Evolving Digital Forensics

The team at UC Berkeley is entering the next frontier in digital forensics, gathering cyber evidence to shed light on human rights injustices.

“The focus of the center has been on taking methodologies and expertise from the university, or a scientific setting, and bringing it to bear in the context of civil society, specifically with regard to the most pressing human rights issues,” said Félim McMahon, Technology and Human Rights program director at the Human Rights Center.

McMahon’s program works at the intersection of human rights and technology, focusing on large scale violations, such as international atrocities, genocide, and war crimes. He runs the Human Rights Investigations Lab, which trains more than 100 graduate and undergraduate students each year to use social media and other open-source content for human rights advocacy and legal accountability.

The approach is scientific and based on multi-stakeholder engagement. “We tend to insert ourselves where change is occurring,” McMahon said. At the moment, the team is focusing on information and communications technology. Projects like the one in Myanmar use open-source information to gather publicly available data on social media networks; information is then used to uncover evidence of human rights violations, such as ethnic cleansing.

The work is part of an emerging field within human rights that collects digital evidence to use in criminal investigations — an evolution of digital forensics, which scrapes computing devices to uncover cyber crimes.

“If you pull all of this data together, you have a stronger case when presenting this before the International Criminal Court.”

— Eric Stover, faculty director at Human Rights Center UC Berkeley

According to McMahon, while investigations used to involve hardware extraction, many hate crimes today are rooted in information available to the public. The work involves trawling through social media posts to collect, analyze, and verify information that can be used as evidence of criminal activity, including at the international level.

The Human Rights Center is also examining the activities of a pro-government militia in Syria. The team produced a series of reports that reverse-engineered social media data to learn more about recruitment, specifically that of child soldiers. “[Researchers] were able to figure out how the [soldiers] were being moved around the country,” McMahon said. “We looked at the issues around their recruitment and child soldiers. All of that data came from social media.”

A Historical Moment for Forensic Work

The work of the investigations lab may still be in its infancy, but the Human Rights Center has a rich history of pioneering technological tools. In the mid-1990s, faculty director Eric Stover organized exhumations of mass graves in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Argentina. In Rwanda, Stover worked on a landmark survey of mass graves using the latest advances in forensic anthropology, later linking several accused to the genocide.

Then came social media. Suddenly, huge swathes of the world’s population were able to create and distribute real-time data about real-world events. The first global incident to be widely covered — in real time — on social media was the 2009 electoral crisis in Iran. Much of the unrest brought about by the political situation unfolded on social platforms, which themselves played a complex role in the events.

Protestors were able to use online networks to organize demonstrations, but at the same time, deaths and injuries that resulted from the suppression of those protests were also documented in real-time online. A lack of journalists on the ground left it open to human rights researchers and advocates to verify the barrage of information and misinformation.

“We had this double possibility emerging,” McMahon said. “On the one hand, mobilization and documentation could be conducted, and on the other hand, advocacy could be conducted around human rights issues.”

Tomorrow’s Investigators

Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Investigations Lab functions as an experiential learning program comprised of undergraduates and postgraduates from the university, across a range of majors. The students, who speak 30 languages between them, are now learning how to do online, open-sourced investigations.

“We’re producing 80 students per year who are schooled in basic digital media literacy [and giving them] some additional cutting-edge methodological twists,” McMahon said. Students are taught how to verify videos and photographs using geolocation applications and experiment with information-sharing platforms. They also receive “resiliency” training to learn how to manage the pressures of remote human rights work.

Currently, students work alongside professors to support organizations like Amnesty International, helping nonprofit analysts collect social media data and provide verification. This work then feeds into reports that can later be used as prosecuting evidence in international courts.

“If you pull all of this data together, you have a stronger case when presenting this before the International Criminal Court, ” Stover said in an interview with PBS News Hour about the role of technology in uncovering human rights abuses. “The prosecutors are relying on the organizations on the ground to collect evidence that is court-admissible,” he added.

The lab is producing digital investigators it hopes will be able to influence future human rights policy at tech companies, in government, and as it relates to public health. “The hope is that they’ll bring an understanding of how to change the world in the way that we can [implement] real changes in our politics,” McMahon said.

In tandem, he reflected, the technology and researchers behind it, “will change our prospects, change what warfare looks like.”