To strengthen digital security for human rights defenders, behavior matters

Article originally appeared on 9 May 2017 as part of the Data and Human Rights discussion at Open Global Rights, and is available here.

Most conversation about digital security for human rights defenders (HRDs) tends to focus on privacy and data protection. This is necessary, but what good is a strong passphrase or Virtual Private Network (VPN) when you are at risk of enforced disappearance and torture by the police? In such situations, even the most seasoned HRD is likely to give up access. A strong digital security strategy adds to protection from physical threats, but for many HRDs operating in hostile environments such threats are sadly inescapable and protection strategies need to be more practical.

The typical emphasis on privacy and data protection means that conventional digital security thinking often stresses technical advice for communication security to prevent detection and HRD detention.

The typical emphasis on privacy and data protection means that conventional digital security thinking often stresses technical advice for communication security to prevent detection and HRD detention. But technical tools only extend so far after an HRD is detained or subjected to torture by police intent on gaining access. I know very tech savvy HRDs who have quickly given over their passphrases at the threat of torture. No one can judge them. In such horrific, and sadly common, scenarios, a more holistic approach to digital security is needed.

Through ongoing support for local initiatives that take a practical approach to digital security, the hope is that more secure behavior will develop in tandem with technology for the authentic holistic security of HRDs in hostile environments.


The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, addressed these multiple insecurities in a February 2016 report, calling for HRDs to foster a culture of ‘holistic security’ that interlinks physical security with digital security and psychosocial well-being. The notion of ‘holistic security’ has been gaining traction in HRD protection frameworks since before 2016 but often in otherwise compartmentalized ways.

On the ground, however, this often means transplanting digital security tools from one context into another alongside other physical or psychosocial strategies, and thinking less holistically about the physical and psychosocial realities of digital security.

This problem is crucial for HRDs operating within authoritarian regimes and shrinking civic spaces, where absent the rule of law there are no such legal protections as habeas corpus, the right to counsel, or freedom from torture. And, as Zara Rahman recently articulated, “technologies are sometimes mentioned or adopted not because they are the most strategic or necessarily useful tools for the job,” but due to uninformed pressure.

Take the most common technical advice offered for enhancing digital security: encryption. Most digital security literature recommends, among others, encryption tools like Protonmail, Signal Messenger, or Vera Crypt. Such tools are necessary but insufficient. Yes, encryption done right ensures that only the intended parties have access, protecting data from third-party monitoring, except the most sophisticated and time-intensive intrusion efforts. But this only offers short-term security in authoritarian regimes.

For several years, I have been working with rights defenders in China, and elsewhere, to develop practical approaches to various protection challenges, including digital security. The project I’m part of is based on the active participation of local feedback groups among the target beneficiaries, and is ongoing with support from Reporters Without Borders and others. Initial conclusions of this project arguably offer transferrable value for HRDs in other repressive environments.

After considerable reflection, my collaborators and I have found that more attention to behavior is critical in providing digital security for HRDs in hostile environments. This means addressing how HRDs relate to and act with the digital security tools they choose to use, how HRDs understand local realities, and how HRDs are supported (or not) based on their specific contexts and threats. This can be called localizing a behavioral approach to digital security.

Here are a few examples for securing behavior from our work so far.

For practical purposes, relying on secure communication tools is important under authoritarianism but, once in detention the concern is less about preventing access than limiting what is accessible. HRDs should adopt dedicated emails for work and maintain a Zero Inbox Policy—that is, always deleting content, either manually or through automatic destruction such as offered in Protonmail, or Signal and Telegram for chat-based communication. This should be standard HRD communication behavior.

Another, often-overlooked behavioral issue, is how HRDs delete sensitive information. Encrypting sensitive data from intrusion is meaningless if it is left easily accessible after deletion through file recovery programs. Several HRDs I spoke with recounted that during police interrogations they were questioned based on whole or partially recovered documents they had thought they had deleted. In short, the way we usually ‘delete’ something does not necessarily delete anything.

Ultimately, any approach to digital security must combine increasing security with a realistic understanding of what behavior is practical. For example, realistically, most people aren’t going to remember the login information to sign into every account they hold, including for shopping or friendly chatting. They would be happy for some passphrases or account details to be saved, and would quickly abandon a procedure that requires otherwise. As such, one of the most practical behavioral approaches is maintaining a dual browser strategy. HRDs should keep one browser, say Firefox, for all rights defense work. Here they use the relevant browser extensions and conventional best practices, with automatic erasure upon exit. On the other hand, they should keep a separate personal browser for entertainment, say Chrome or Opera, in which, for example, non-sensitive passwords can be saved for easy use.

The approach should also be local. This means language localization, as far too many technical tools remain available only with English language interfaces, but above all it means contextualization and regionalization. This is in line with a recent piece by Danna Ingleton, on the importance of recognizing agency and centralizing the experiences of HRDs in their own protection.

In this sense, developing practical digital security strategy requires extending a greater degree of agency to the HRDs who are most affected and who will most benefit. One way to achieve this is for donors to support the creation of local feedback groups, which has been the foundation of the project I have been involved with, whether to inform the creation of new versions of existing digital security guidebooks, identify the most practical behavior for how technology is used, or devise bottom up advise for institutional support.

Through ongoing support for local initiatives that take a practical approach to digital security, the hope is that more secure behavior will develop in tandem with technology for the authentic holistic security of HRDs in hostile environments.

 

Toothless Tigers in the Subway: An Animal Rights Campaign in China

Amid the usual frenetic pulsing throngs of passing subway patrons, Beijing denizens and tourists rushing from the sliding doors of subway cars to be the first ones up the escalator to make their connections or meetings, I examined my reflection in a glass partition waiting for the train to pass. After the train rushed away, I took notice of a conservationist advertisement across the tracks, a not too common sight in China I must say. Admittedly, I was so unaccustomed to conscientious or activist inspiring discourse in such politically sanctioned public space that it took me several trips before I actually took notice of the nature of this advertisement: A proscription against animal cruelty. The public service announcements were designed by IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

IMG_5171The text reads, “Imagine an elephant without its teeth (ivory), a tiger without its bones, a bear without its gall bladder… A human without its humanity?”
The text in red reads, “To purchase (购买) = to slaughter (杀戮)”

IMG_5173Here the message is repeated. From left to right the Chinese characters for elephant, tiger, bear, and person are each written with a missing stroke; a splash of blood in its place. The sentence in green at the bottom reads,
“Purchasing is tantamount to slaughter, when it comes to products from wild animals just say “NO” !

IFAW lists fighting wildlife trafficking among its core activities. It explains on its website that it protects animals from illegal wildlife trade through: (1) Strengthening international agreements; (2) Training wildlife law enforcement officers; (3) Ending the illegal trade in tiger parts and elephant ivory; (4) Investigating Internet wildlife trafficking; (5) Educating consumers to reject products made from wildlife; (6) IFAW and INTERPOL, working together to fight wildlife crime. The illegal trade in tiger parts, elephant ivory, and bear bile is of particular concern in China, where certain folk remedies and traditional Chinese medicine nostrums still claim such products have curative properties.

In December of 2012 Malaysian authorities seized around 1,500 elephant tusks, between 20 and 24 tonnes, weighing the same as the previous year’s entire haul of illegally traded ivory, according to the Guardian. The two containers were seized by port authorities near Kuala Lumpur. The shipment had come from Togo, on the West coast of Africa, and was bound for China. The same Guardian article quotes Will Travers, the chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, a British based animal rights organization,

I thought that when the international ivory trade ban was agreed in 1989, we would see a permanent reversal of fortunes for this beleaguered species. How wrong I was – the respite was temporary. Experts estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 elephants are being illegally killed each year to fuel demand, largely driven by China. No part of Africa is now safe. Across the continent, for the first time, the number of carcasses recorded as a result of poaching exceeds the number reportedly dying from natural causes.

Elephant Ivory is preeminent among the world’s sources of ivory, which includes walrus, rhinoceros, and narwhal. Elephant ivory is most prized for its unique texture and because it is softer it is more malleable. In a 2012 piece for The Atlantic Rebecca J. Rosen explains, quoting a New York Times article, “as much of 70 percent of the illegal ivory heads to China, where a pound can fetch as much as $1,000. “The demand for ivory has surged to the point that the tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income in many African countries…” This rise in demand has emboldened poachers who are enchanted by the corresponding rise in price. With Ivory, unlike other animal products, the principle drive for the Chinese market may be more aesthetic than medicinal. The demand is responsible for a startling increase in global ivory trade and a corresponding destabilization of human security in the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries, where ivory is among diamonds and other precious material fueling conflict.

IFAW explains that part of the problem in China may be explained by linguistics. In Chinese ivory is expressed by 象牙, which most literally just means elephant tooth. In previous IFAW polls 70% of the 1067 Chinese people included in the survey did not know that ivory came from dead animals, being mislead by the linguistic implications that ivory, like human teeth, can fall out naturally or be removed without killing. This discovery led IFAW to initiate the ‘Mom I’ve got teeth’ campaign in 2010, says Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director. She explained, “The ads explain that ivory products come from dead elephants and encourage consumers to reject elephant ivory.” Since the campaign started running, IFAW is positive that the rate of ivory consumption in China has decreased. IFAW explains that 88% of those who have seen the campaign have fully processed its message and that within the demographics most likely to purchase ivory there has been a rate decrease from 54% to 26%. Elephants are not the only animals targeted for protection by the IFAW campaign.

Tigers in Crisis, an NGO focused on the protection of tigers and their habitats in China and Russia, notes that for over a thousand years Chinese folk medicine has included tiger parts. The continued belief in the curative properties of tigers is placing the threatened species at considerably increased risk. It is estimated that there are only 3,500 tigers still living in the wild. From their elevated position in mythology and legend tigers are believed to have extraordinary power and when certain parts of the tiger are consumed by humans that power is transferred. Tigers in Crisis explains that all parts of the tiger from bones, eyes, whiskers and teeth are used to treat ailments from malaria to bad skin. Many superstitions have been inscribed in tomes of folk remedies explaining that the “active ingredients in tiger bone; calcium and protein, which help promote healing, have anti-inflammatory properties.” According to the article, the following parts of the tiger are believed to have certain corresponding medicinal properties:

Tiger claws: used as a sedative for insomnia
Teeth: used to treat fever
Fat: used to treat leprosy and rheumatism
Nose leather: used to treat superficial wounds such as bites
Tiger bone: used as an anti-inflammatory drug to treat rheumatism and arthritis, general weakness, headaches, stiffness or paralysis in lower back and legs and dysentery
Eyeballs: used to treat epilepsy and malaria
Tail: used to treat skin diseases
Bile: used to treat convulsions in children associated with meningitis
Whiskers: used to treat toothaches
Brain: used to treat laziness and pimples
Penis: used in love potions such as tiger soup, as an aphrodisiac
Dung or feces: used to treat boils, hemorrhoids and cure alcoholism

Dried tiger bones are often boiled or soaked in alcohol to produce tonics and medicinal wines. Medicinal wines are popular in China, as is home made alcohols that often include cobras or scorpions but legally none of the commercially sold products are allowed to include the animal products of endangered species. That is, however, until recently.

A Chinese company has managed to circumvent stringent laws against the international trafficking of endangered species and their animal products, reports a watchdog organization. The spirits company has managed to sell its wine domestically for between 616 and 4740 RMB (about 100 to 767.40 USD) per bottle. The price depends on how long the tiger bones were soaked in the alcohol. The government has somehow decreed that because the tigers used in the production of the ‘tonic’ wines are both domestic and captive-bred international proscriptions do not apply. Although there are only about 3,500 tigers alive in the wild, China boasts almost 5,000 tigers in captivity, the largest number in the world. Although this tiger bone tonic wine does not seem to be widely available, the fact that it is sanctioned by the government at all is quite alarming. It is alarming that the government would condone such treatment of a captive-bred endangered species and further alarming that it condones this treatment for multiple endangered species.

“Some Westerners say this is cruel – but I think the bears are making a contribution to mankind,” says a grinning bear bile farmer to a BBC reporter. Like tiger bones and elephant ivory or other animal products, bear parts, particularly bile and dried gall bladders, have been used for hundreds of years in Chinese folk medicine. While bear bile was traditionally collected from wild bears, rapid urbanization and population increase in the 1970s and 1980s has driven the industry to establishing larger and larger complexes for captive-bred collection.

The process is excruciating for the captive bears. The animals are kept in severely restrictive cages that allow for easy access to their abdomen but completely restrict their ability to stand up or even move at all sometimes. Some bears have been kept in such confinement for upwards of 10 years, being milked for their bile twice a day. This confined state naturally causes severe psychological trauma and physical deformation. The extraction of bile usually happens twice a day and takes place through a tube that has been implanted in the bear’s abdomen. Since the holes never close, in addition to the already excruciating pain of extraction, infections and diseases are common.

The severity of this practice is highlighted in the following anecdote from a bear bile farm in Northwest China. A mother bear, hearing her cub howling in terror as the workers were about to make the incision for the tube that would likely milk bile from the poor cub twice a day for the next 5-10 years, managed to break free from her cage and charge to her cub. When she realized she couldn’t free her child from its confines the mother bear reached in and strangled the cub whereby she promptly ran head first into a wall killing herself. Such bizarre acts are testament to the extreme brutality of the process in China, where it is part of a surprisingly large business. Powdered Bear bile can sell for around 20 USD per gram and The Humane Society of the United States says that a bear gallbladder can sell for more than $3,000 in Asia. ‘A Controversial Cure,’ A characteristically informative and moving documentary by film maker Jonah Kessel offers a glimpse into the industry.

By some reports there are several dozen companies in China with upwards of 10,000 bears in captivity, while others report the number as high as 20,000. One company alone, China’s largest producer of bear bile, Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals, based in Fujian Province, boasts over 500 endangered moon bears. The company wants to go public on the Chinese stock exchange and double its number of captive-bred bears.

A New York Times report by Andrew Jacobs and Jonah Kessel explains the reaction to Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals’ I.P.O. by China’s nascent animal rights movement, “Protesters in bear suits picketed drugstores, hackers briefly brought down Guizhentang’s Web site and more than 70 Chinese celebrities, including the basketball star Yao Ming and the pop diva Han Hong, circulated a petition calling on the stock exchange to reject the I.P.O.” The animal rights movement in China is small compared to its American or European comrades but it has been increasing and winning successes through direct actions and social media campaigns. The New York Times piece quotes Deborah Cao on the burgeoning animal rights movement, “It’s a bottom-up, grass-roots movement, one that is contributing to an emerging civil society increasingly aware of individual rights and obligations, be it to humans or animals.”

The IFAW subway campaign is part of this multimedia public awareness project for greater animal rights in China. And, if we accept Deborah Cao’s analysis, that such a campaign is part of empowering the emerging civil society to be more rights aware, whether for animal or human rights, then these creative billboards are a more significant artifact in public space than they may first appear to be.