Advances in digital communications technology – particularly social media and the spread of smartphones – have revolutionized the practice of human rights. Victims of, and witnesses to, human rights abuses can now document their experiences, and share them directly with the world. This publicly available information is referred to as ‘open source’ information. This information can then contribute to broader human rights documentation and accountability mechanisms. The recent International Criminal Court arrest warrant issued against Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli was based on open source digital information.
Open source investigations are becoming central to effective human rights investigations. However, the use of this information raises a number of concerns, particularly with respect to ethics. At HRBDT, we are researching these ethical considerations. We also run a digital verification unit, based at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre Clinic. The unit’s work in collaboration with Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps has been shortlisted for a Times Higher Education International Collaboration award.
The project, with the support of the Engine Room, is researching the ethical considerations that should be taken into account when conducting open source investigations for advocacy or legal accountability. This will culminate in a white paper to be published in late 2019. We have also been considering the human rights impact of the current misinformation and disinformation ecosphere. Members of the HRBDT project are also working on a textbook – Digital Witness: Using Open Source Information for Human Rights Investigation, Documentation, and Accountability – to be published by OUP at the end of 2019.