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Navigating Digital Landmines for Changemakers

This post was written by the Asia Centre for the Digital Security and Human Rights Defenders in the Asia-Pacific research project

The internet and digital technologies have revolutionised how changemakers and civil society organisations (CSOs) champion human rights. It has reshaped changemakers’ advocacy strategies and connected them to people worldwide, tearing down barriers with seamless communication. But while these technologies have unlocked massive benefits and opportunities, it has not quite been a digital utopia.

Lurking in the shadows are digital bogeymen threatening the safety and security of human rights defenders. Governments, especially in authoritarian countries, have jumped on the same tech bandwagon and used digital tools to keep a close eye on those pushing for social justice and speaking truth to power. The reveal that states have deployed a sophisticated espionage tool against activists, journalists, and rights advocates has sent shockwaves across the Asia-Pacific in recent years.

In Thailand, authorities have reportedly intercepted communications following the 2014 military takeover and pro-democracy protests in 2020 and 2021. Activists, lawyers, and academics fell prey to the infamous Pegasus spyware. The threat of state surveillance is not confined to the virtual space alone; it is a real-world intimidation tactic, creating an atmosphere of fear.

Aside from surveillance, governments are turning up the heat by slapping strict regulations on online content. In Singapore, legal provisions like those in the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act – with its vague and subjective definitions of key terms – are used to penalise free speech. This has resulted in self-censorship among human rights defenders, turning advocacy into an uphill battle.

And if that were not enough, information warfare tactics like patriotic trolling are muddling online spaces. Indonesian changemakers are reporting online stalking, intimidation, and even digital impersonations, with those from the LGBTQI+ community facing an even greater risk of harassment.

Digital Security for Rights Defenders

In the face of these threats and dangers, changemakers are not sitting still. Human rights defenders (HRDs) and CSOs have been actively producing digital security guides and promoting open and secure technology such as virtual private networks, encrypted password managers, and secure messaging apps as counter-surveillance measures. But the problem is the adoption of these technologies among HRDs: despite their proven effectiveness in increasing digital safety, why is there limited interest and use to adopt these tools?

To learn about the reasons, EngageMedia and the Asia Centre produced a research report to learn from CSOs about their digital security practices and reservations about using digital security tools as a safeguard against digital surveillance.

Here’s what we learned.

HRDs and CSOs conduct security assessments and adopt digital shields to protect themselves against surveillance threats. Some have IT teams on standby, fortifying their digital defences. Unfortunately, not all changemakers can afford this high-tech armour. Resources are scarce—be it human, technical, or financial.

Lack of resources aside, some changemakers are also sceptical about the need to adopt such robust security measures, believing themselves to be sufficiently protected. It is a mix of not fully grasping the digital dangers and a generation gap. Younger changemakers who are typically more tech-savvy understand the threats, but for others, it is like learning a new language.

So what can be done about this situation? A multi-stakeholder approach is crucial for long-term impact. Changemakers take the lead, maximising the tools they have and spreading the importance of digital security among their peers. Collaborating with international NGOs becomes crucial—using their networks to report human rights violations and assist when resources are scarce.

Donors and tech giants have a role to play too. Funders should funnel resources not just for projects, but for changemakers’ digital training too. Tech giants should also collaborate with changemakers to ensure their tools are not only secure but also user-friendly to maximise their use.

Digital security challenges are here to stay. Eliminating these threats might be a pipe dream, but boosting capacity among changemakers is key. Armed with the skills and tools to face the dangers that lurk online, changemakers will be better equipped to continue pushing for their advocacies on the digital battlefield.

Read the full report