Being the target

Human rights defenders are continuously at risk of violence, intimidation and surveillance as a direct consequence of the work they do, with women or those opposing large corporations bearing the brunt of these forms of repression.

Privacy International spoke to four activists based in Colombia, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa to learn more about their understanding and experiences of surveillance. Their testimonies illustrate how the promises that came with innovation and the use of new technologies have not been enjoyed by all equally, and how some groups in society - such as human rights defenders - have experienced the impact of surveillance and the exploitation of data by governments and companies more severely than others.

Below is an outline of the main issues that these four activists brought to our attention which reflect the concerns raised previously by other organisations and HRDs across the world.

Round black and white target

An exponential cost to human rights

From traditional espionage following to spyware, HRDs worldwide are subjected to surveillance worldwide, regardless of whether they are seasoned or one-time activists. The surveillance of HRDs has a powerful ripple effect. HRDs often rely on a network of fellow activists or CSOs for the sharing of information, strategies, and expertise. The violation of their privacy not only threatens their own wellbeing, but that of their network. Tech-enabled surveillance - such as spyware - can have a particularly perverse effect by putting large amounts of data at the disposal of the attacker. The experience of surveillance can have long-lasting, costly effects at a personal level and institutional level. In serious cases, surveillance can lead to the interruption of project work, and may potentially result in the closure of the organisation where funds are insufficient to mitigate surveillance risks.

PI’s recommendation: HRDs must be protected from technology-enabled attacks:

  • Governments should in all circumstances refrain from deploying technology-based surveillance capabilities against HRDs.
  • Governments should in all circumstances refrain from contracting with private companies which have a dubious human rights record.
  • Law enforcement agencies must be given robust training and adequately resourced to ensure that they are in a position to properly investigate tech-based attacks to HRDs, and that they adopt appropriate measures not to re-victimise HRDs.

Beware data-intensive systems

In countries with unduly intrusive ID systems, access to basic services can be made conditional on accessing detailed personal data from the subscriber, enabling close monitoring of not just individuals, but also their families. In the absence of laws properly regulating the transfer of data from private to public actors - and vice-versa - there is a heightened danger of comprehensive surveillance, and in the case of HRDs, of violence.

PI’s recommendation: HRDs and the population at large must be protected from intrusive data collection and data-matching practices.

  • Minimise the integration of public-private databases, to avoid the collection of vast but ultimately unnecessary and disproportionate quantities of personal data. The information derived from these combined sources of data could facilitate the surveillance and persecution of human rights defenders, allowing them no safe haven.
  • Minimise the extent of personal data required to access basic services, such as mobile phone subscription, to avoid excessive data being collected of an individual.

Unfettered law enforcement powers lead to abuse

Law enforcement can play a leading role in the surveillance, intimidation and harassment of HRDs. Vast police powers, when left unchecked, can openly victimise HRDs, while simultaneously curtailing their rights of due process by denying access to key information, legal advice, and visiting rights. Similarly, private military actors may significantly influence and/or support government in the surveillance of HRDs, which may ultimately result in their intimidation, forced displacement, physical harm or assassination.

PI’s recommendation: Governments must introduce robust systems of checks and balances to prevent and limit surveillance, intimidation and abuse of HRDs by law enforcement and affiliated actors fulfilling a similar role:
- Legislative bodies must introduce, or amend, existing privacy and data protection legal frameworks, or where there is none develop new ones, that regulate surveillance by police and intelligence agencies, aimed at ensuring they are robust, effectively implemented, and provide adequate redress for individuals.
- Strengthening laws or introducing new ones that set out clear guidelines within which the government authorities may conduct surveillance activities.
- There must be laws in place to ensure that there is a supervisory authority which is empowered to hear complaints about law enforcement’s compliance with data protection and surveillance laws.

Social media platforms aren't always a force for good

While social media platforms are key to amplify the messages of HRDs, they also maintain an environment which allows for HRDs to be targeted by way of “buzzer” or “doxxing” attacks. As a result, HRDs may be faced with a torrent of abuse and harassment amplified by bots, or otherwise see their intimate personal data introduced in the public domain without their consent.

PI’s recommendation: Social media platforms should step up efforts to:
- Ensure they effectively combat misinformation and disinformation.
- Remove bot accounts being used for malicious purposes.
- Act swiftly and decisively on reports of “doxxing” or other instances of publication of private information without express authorisation or permission.

Corruption is a key obstacle to justice

Corruption not only obstructs access to justice, but can often be the very cause behind the violence HRDs are targeted with. In the absence of adequate oversight systems, corruption can thrive, making prospects of justice and redress for HRDs ever more remote.

PI’s recommendation: Governments must ensure that there is an independent and well-resourced oversight body which can investigate corruption at all levels of the criminal justice system, both motu propio and on the basis of individuals complaints.