On the Record edited by Annie Harrison

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Technology For Human Rights Investigators

I work for several nonprofit technology companies including Benetech which is based on Palo Alto, California. The CEO of Benetech, Jim Fruchterman, and the organization's chief scientist, Patrick Ball, both spoke at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference this week. They talked about Benetech's Martus software which is used by organizations around the world to protect sensitive information and shield the identity of victims or witnesses who provide testimony on human rights abuses.

Martus is open source software that lets users create searchable and encrypted databases and back this data up remotely to their choice of servers. The software has been downloaded in more than one hundred counties around the world. Earlier this month, the Martus project received a 2-year grant from the U.S. State Department to train African human rights organizations who gather information about violations against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Two of the largest groups of Martus users are Burmese ex-patriot organizations that collect information about human rights violations in Burma, and investigators at the Guatemalan National Police Archive who are using the software to encrypt a vast collection of police records. Benetech's Human Rights Data Analysis Group has been working in partnership with archivists to analyze samples of the estimated 80 million pieces of paper inside the Archive. Many of the police documents were created during the country's internal armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, during which thousands of Guatemalans were killed and disappeared.

Analysis of randomly sampled documents in the Guatemalan National Police Archive by Benetech statistician Daniel Guzmán served as key evidence in the conviction last year of two former Guatemalan National Police agents accused of complicity in the 1984 disappearance of 26-year-old student and union leader Edgar Fernando García. Both officers were sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Very few people have ever been held accountable for the atrocities that took place in Guatemala, especially commanding officers. Courts rightly demand evidence. Scientifically defensible data, secured by encryption tools like Martus, can help end impunity. Earlier this year, data from the Guatemalan National Police Archive was used to support the arrest of the former chief of the Guatemalan National Police, Hector Bol de la Cruz, and retired Guatemalan general Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes who has been accused of participating in genocide and crimes against humanity. These arrests will likely lead to historic war crimes trials in Guatemala. In the meantime, teams of archivists continue to scan, encrypt and upload thousands of police records using software developed in Silicon Valley.


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