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Fri 3 April 2020
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Tasnim Nazeer explores how technology is being used for dark purposes, but is also helping to expose persecution.


There are many countries around the world that continue to deny the media open access to sources and locations in order to cover up human rights violations that may be occurring.

One recent example of this was the Chinese Government’s attempt to hide the plight of the country’s Uyghur Muslims in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. There is evidence to suggest that more than one million Uyghur Muslims have been placed in internment camps whilst facing persecution and being treated like prisoners. But, using open source technology and data collection, investigative reporters and media outlets have been able to monitor satellite footage and images to obtain a better picture of what is happening in the region and expose the lies. 

The Chinese Government has denied that the Uyghurs are being mistreated in prison-like circumstances, yet reporters have found that the buildings housing them have barbed wire and noticeable features resembling those of prisons in China, in comparison to residences or educational institutions. 

In getting to the truth, a significant discovery were the China Cables – a highly classified document, leaked last November, which was taken from the Chinese Government’s website and revealed how Chinese authorities have deliberately been cracking down on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. For the first time, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ China Cables investigation revealed operational plans for the internment camps and orders that were given by the Chinese Government for carrying out mass detentions, guided by sweeping data collection and artificial intelligence using open source journalism methods such as gaining access to satellite maps. 

The China Cables show that this type of technology is instrumental for journalists wanting to get to the bottom of a story and expose potentially life-changing information that can help raise awareness about the wrongdoings in our society and push for change. 

In Syria, open source evidence played a pivotal role in the response to the Douma chemical attack. A number of chemical weapon attacks in the Syrian towns of Talmenes, Al-lataminah, Kafr Zita and Khan Sheikhoun had been documented and verified. However, an alleged chemical attack in Douma created a ripple effect on taking action when the world looked on in horror. 

The Syrian Government had denied entry for journalists in these areas and many rely on open sources, as do human rights organisation such as Amnesty International. Sam Dubberley, manager of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps, stated: “As someone who has spent long hours sifting through, verifying and mapping videos and photos depicting attacks against civilians and destruction of civilian objects, I am certain that the recent images from Douma that have been collated and verified – using well-established methodologies – by trusted organisations are not faked.” 

Many times, governments try to dismiss human rights abuses by making out that sources or footage is fake. Whilst disinformation is produced around the world, many accounts of human rights violations taken from open sources and verified by trusted media institutions paint a realistic picture of what is going on and what governments want to hide behind closed doors.

Governments around the world have also misused technology for their own advantage. China, for example, has used it to undertake mass surveillance of the Uyghurs and invade their privacy. However, what these countries are forgetting, is that the same technology can be used in a positive way for the greater good and can enable reporters to help separate fact from fictional tales told to us by those in power in countries that lack transparency of information. 

Journalists and organisations around the world are cracking open important stories through open source technology, such as the discovery of a mass burial site in Burundi by Amnesty International. Many major media institutions such as Reuters, the New York Times and Foreign Policy recognised how this technology helped to expose evidence of murder, violence and gang rape committed by the Burundian security forces which otherwise would not have been easy to obtain. 

Many open source tools have been created for journalists to utilise in pushing to expose war crimes and human rights violations such as the Gaza Platform which enables people to monitor war crimes carried out by the Israeli Government in Gaza. Bellingcat is another resource for  journalists to investigate current events using open-source intelligence, with the site having investigated events such as the Syrian Civil War, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine and the Salisbury Novichok poisonings in the UK. Many newsrooms are also utilising artificial intelligence to fact-check sources, images and videos effectively, giving more credibility to stories that those in power do not want to share.

We can all use open source technology to make a difference in holding those in power to account, gaining access to key information and providing coverage of human rights violations that need to be reported, in the hope that civilians and those in need can get the help they require and the justice they deserve. 


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