Helping human rights activists protect and preserve digital data

Human rights defenders using mobile data India

DatNav, a new guide, helps human rights defenders integrate digital data into their work

Human rights defenders face risks of physical violence, intimidation, and abuse as they interview victims, collect stories, and report their findings. Yet they continue with this very important work because they understand the importance of grounding advocacy campaigns and policy in solid, verified evidence.

At Benetech, we have been supporting human rights reporting and documentation for nearly fifteen years by providing data collection tools and training. Without the ability to document atrocities and human rights abuses, vulnerable populations lack the data necessary to defend themselves and bring perpetrators to justice. As one of our partners, Rainbow Health Foundation Mbarara in rural Uganda, put it: “Struggle without documentation is no struggle at all.”

Secure, systematic data collection

Man holding copy of Uganda report of violations based on gender identity and sexual orientation

Anchoring Benetech’s Human Rights Program is the concept of secure, systematic data collection to document human rights abuses. We developed Martus in 2003 with and for human rights defenders who needed more secure tools to collect and store sensitive information about human rights abuses, victims, and survivors. Martus is an open source data collection and storage platform that allows users to encrypt records both at the point of entry (on their laptop, desktop, or mobile device) and at rest (stored locally or on a server). This end-to-end encryption model ensures that only authorized users have access to sensitive data. Even if subpoenaed by law enforcement, Benetech is unable to decrypt our users’ data. We’re proud of this, and we stand by this model for human rights data. 

While many of our users store data locally, others choose to store data on Martus servers, which allows them to restore their data even in the event of computer failure, seizure, or loss. Working with very small budgets, in challenging environments, and under hostile governments, our users absolutely need open source tools that safeguard their data – which is their most valuable asset. 

One of our partners, an LGBTI rights group in Uganda, noted with regret that even after having received Martus training, they maintained paper-based member lists. These records were confiscated by police during raids in support of the government’s anti-homosexuality agenda. Although no members were arrested for their activities, our partner became more diligent about encrypting its data. Since then, that organization contributed its collected stories of violations, abuses, and thefts to the Uganda Report of Violations Based on Sex Determination, Gender Identify, and Sexual Orientation. Their collective documentation efforts helped achieve the decriminalization of homosexuality in Uganda, when the Anti-Homosexuality Act was struck down on August 1, 2014 by the Ugandan High Court.

But our partners and colleagues increasingly speak of feeling isolated and overwhelmed, daunted by the ever-growing amount of human rights data and continually evolving tech tools and systems. Benetech helps human rights defenders navigate this changing landscape and trains them to protect themselves and the digital information that they collect.

Collaboration with Amnesty International and The Engine Room

We began a collaboration with human rights pioneer Amnesty International in early 2015 to explore opportunities both to investigate, and then to create, technology tools to support human rights defenders. Joining our partnership a few months later was The Engine Room, an innovative organization best known for their Responsible Data Program that explores safe and ethical uses of data for social change. Together the three organizations convened – both virtually and in person – communities of activists, researchers, program managers, and others to discuss how human rights experts are using digital data in their work. With all of the new data streams available – satellite imagery, cellphone video, metadata, social media, to name a few – human rights defenders need standards for data collection and use, clear protocols for verification or determination of reliability, guides for building threat models, and best practices to support the psychosocial well-being of researchers, documenters, and data collectors. 

In addition to the collective knowledge of the three primary organizations, we knew our peers had much to offer, and so we held a series of community calls, interviews, and surveys to solicit input, suggestions, and case studies. 


DatNav: How to navigate digital data for human rights research. The Engine Room. Benetech. Amnesty International.

Click to download guide (8.6 MB PDF)

These conversations culminated in DatNav, a comprehensive guide authored in May 2016 by over a dozen experts and reviewed by a dozen more. DatNav, as a community-generated resource, is intended to help human rights professionals understand the many different media sources available to them today. DatNav was designed to help human rights defenders navigate and integrate digital data into their human rights work. In particular, it aims to:

  • Boost traditional human rights documentation by explaining how to incorporate digital data.
  • Build knowledge and expertise in advance of emergencies.
  • Explain the opportunities, limits, and risks of digital data.
  • Empower individuals and organizations to use digital data and technology responsibly.

DatNav includes case studies and scenarios and also addresses verification, privacy, ethics, reliability, fraud, and other responsible data considerations. As data collection costs continue to decrease and new platforms emerge, we will see even more opportunities to harness these data sources for human rights work. When used responsibly, this data can help human rights professionals whether litigating in court, working with governments and journalists, or documenting historical records.

Keith Hiatt, Benetech’s recently appointed Vice President of Human Rights, understands the value of data. A former database developer and human rights researcher, Keith has repeatedly emphasized the potential of digital data collection in human rights work. “DatNav is a major step forward for the human rights community,” he wrote. “We can’t ignore the opportunities that come with large-scale data analysis---but we can’t ignore the risks, either. This guide is an essential resource for every human rights organization that collects data; and these days, that is likely to be all of them.”

About Benetech’s Human Rights Program

Benetech’s Human Rights Program empowers human rights defenders around the world to pursue truth and justice by providing technology solutions and capacity building. The Martus platform is a free and open source toolset allowing practitioners to securely capture, encrypt, and analyze sensitive information. We train human rights practitioners on secure data collection to protect at-risk communities, including women, ethnic minorities, and LGBTI individuals.

About Benetech

Benetech is a different kind of tech company. We’re a nonprofit whose mission is to empower communities in need by creating scalable technology solutions. Our work has transformed how over 425,000 people with disabilities read; made it safer for human rights defenders in over fifty countries to document human rights violations; and equipped environmental conservationists to protect ecosystems and species all over the world. Our Benetech Labs is working on the next big impact. Visit


Image copyright: Benetech


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