Nikole Yanez engaging in human rights and technology work in Honduras

Nikole: “I come from the world of technology where there are very few women”

Nikole Yanez is a computer scientist by training, and a human rights defender from Honduras. She is passionate about feminism, the impact of the internet and protecting activists. She was first drawn to human rights through her work as a reporter with a local community radio station.

After surviving the coup d’état in Honduras in 2009, Nikole broadened her approach to focus her activism on technology. When she applied for the Digital Forensics Fellowship with the Amnesty Tech Security Lab in 2022, she was looking to learn more about cybersecurity and apply what she learnt with the organizations and collectives she works with regularly.  

She highlighted her commitment to fostering a network of tech-savvy communities across Latin America in an interview with Elina Castillo, Amnesty Tech’s Advocacy and Policy Advisor.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your activism?

Human Rights as a space of hope

I grew up in Honduras, where I lived through the coup d’état, which took place in 2009. It was a difficult time where rights were non-existent, and people were constantly afraid. I thought it was something you only read about in history books, but it was happening in front of my eyes. I felt myself just trying to survive, but as time went by it made me stronger and want to fight for justice.

Despite the difficulties, people in my community remained hopeful and we created a community radio station, which broadcast stories about everyday people and their lives with the aim of informing people about their human rights. I was a reporter, developing stories about individual people and their fight for their rights. From there, I found a passion for working with technology and it inspired me to train to become a computer scientist.

I am always looking for ways to connect technology with activism, and specifically to support women and Indigenous people in their struggles. As much as technology presents risks for human rights defenders, it also offers opportunities for us to better protect ourselves and strengthen our movements. Technology can bring more visibility to our movements, and it can empower our work by allowing us to connect with other people and learn new strategies.

Is there one moment where you realized how to connect what you’ve been doing with feminism with technology?

In my work, my perspective as a feminist helps me centre the experiences and needs of marginalised people for trainings and outreach. It is important for me to publicly identify as an Afrofeminist in a society where there is impunity for gendered and racist violence that occurs every day. In Honduras we need to put our energy into supporting these communities whose rights are most violated, and whose stories are invisible.

For example, in 2006, I was working with a Union to install the Ubuntu operating system (an open-source operating system) on their computers. We realized that the unionists didn’t know how to use a computer, so we created a space for digital literacy and learning about how to use a computer at the same time. This became not just a teaching exercise, but an exercise for me to figure out how to connect these tools to what people are interested in. Something clicked for me in this moment, and this experience helped solidify my approach to working on technology and human rights.

The intersection of digital forensics and feminism

What motivated you to apply for the digital forensics programme?

There are not many women working in technology and human rights. I don’t want to be one of the only women, so my goal is to see more women colleagues working on technical issues. I want to make it possible for women to work in this field.

I also want to motivate more women to create change within the intersection of technology and human rights. Using a feminist perspective and approach, we ask big questions about how we are doing the work, what our approach needs to be, and who we need to work with.   

Nikole Yanez Honduras Human Rights Defender

For me, building a feminist internet means building an internet for everyone. This means creating a space where we do not reproduce sexist violence, where we find a community that responds to the people, to the groups, and to the organizations that fight for human rights. This includes involving women and marginalised people in building the infrastructure, in the configuration of servers, and in the development of protocols for how we use all these tools.

In Honduras, there aren’t many people trained in digital forensics analysis, yet there are organizations that are always seeking me out to help check their phones. The fellowship helped me learn about forensic analysis on phones and computers and tied the learning to what I’m actually doing in my area with different organizations and women’s rights defenders. The fellowship was practical and rooted in the experience of civil society organizations.

Nikole Yanez running a technology and human rights session in Honduras

How do you explain the importance of digital forensics?

Well first, it’s incredibly relevant for women rights defenders. Everyone wants to know if their phone has been hacked. That’s the first thing they ask:, “Can you actually know whether your phone has been hacked?” and “How do I know? Can you do it for me? How?” Those are the things that come up in my trainings and conversations.

I like to help people to think about protection as a process, something ongoing, because we use technology all day long. There are organizations and people that take years to understand that. So, it’s not something that can be achieved in a single conversation. Sometimes a lot of things need to happen, including bad things, before people really take this topic seriously.

And in this process of raising awareness, do you have your own definition that you use to explain to people what you do?

More than anything else, I talk about protection. We talk about digital security, and how to configure your phone. Very simple, basic things, that help people to feel more protected.

I try to use very basic tools when I’m doing digital security support, to say you can do this on whatever device you’re on, this is a prevention tool. It’s not just applying technical knowledge, it’s also a process of explaining, training, showing how this work is not just for hackers or people who know a lot about computers.

One of the challenges is to spread awareness about cybersecurity among Indigenous and grassroots organizations, which aren’t hyper-connected and don’t think that digital forensics work is relevant to them. Sometimes what we do is completely disconnected from their lives, and they ask us: “But what are you doing?” So, our job is to understand their questions and where they are coming from and ground our knowledge-sharing in what people are actually doing.

Taking the plunge

To someone reading this piece and saying, oh, this kind of resonates with me, where do I start, what would your recommendation be?

If you are a human rights defender, I would recommend that you share your knowledge with your collective. You can teach them the importance of knowing about them, practicing them, as well as encouraging training to prevent digital attacks, because, in the end, forensic analysis is a reaction to something that has happened.

We can take a lot of preventive measures to ensure the smallest possible impact. That’s the best way to start. And it’s crucial to stay informed, to keep reading, to stay up to date with the news and build community.

If there are girls or gender non-conforming people reading this who are interested in technical issues, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a degree or a formal education, as long as you like it. Most hackers I’ve met become hackers because they dive into a subject, they like it and they’re passionate about it.

Nikole Yanez Honduras Human Rights Defender

And if you’re passionate about these subjects, then I’d invite you to take the plunge, jump in, seize the opportunity and enjoy yourselves. We need more people working on these issues.

This interview was translated from Spanish, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/nikolehn

Are you passionate about human rights like Nikole?

join our movement today