Salil Shetty speech to Techfest

Technology: force for progress, or tool of repression?

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty addresses Techfest in IIT Bombay on 16 December 2016


Thank you, I am excited to be here and to have this opportunity to speak to you. I am delighted to be back in IIT Bombay, I was here many moons ago during my IIM, Ahmedabad days with my batchmates who studied here.

Now some of you may be wondering what is this human rights wallah doing in a Techfest. Some of you may be even wondering what human rights really mean? And some others may be wondering what Amnesty International really does.

It is not uncommon for middle class folks like us in emerging economies like Brazil, India or Turkey to sincerely hold the view that human rights is about defending bad guys and being an obstacle to development and progress. For those who do hold that view, may I suggest that you think of human rights in terms of providing checks and balances that all societies need. Governments and corporations always prefer to have absolute power. But it is so essential that the rule of law, independent judiciary, media, academia and thinking are nurtured to provide a counterpoint. So yes, due process including independent investigations and a fair trial is something that all societies like India that are well on their way to becoming a global power need to have in place. Even if it we are talking about a criminal or so-called “terrorist”, due process is essential. Just like you would not argue about the right to property, all people should have equal access to human rights.

That is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights talks about and that is exactly what the Indian Constitution obligates us to – every Indian and every human being is free and equal in dignity and rights. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, what your religion, caste or creed is, your rights will be protected by the state. Of course, this is easier said than done. Ensuring that states and companies protect human rights and ensure justice and abide by their commitments is the business that Amnesty is in.

We are the world’s oldest and largest movement for human rights. Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for its seminal work on the fight against the use of torture by governments. We are independent of any economic or political or religious ideology or influence. We take no money from governments or corporations for our research and campaigning and are almost entirely funded by ordinary people like you. And we are global, with a presence in nearly 100 countries.

Amnesty International exists to bring about a world where human rights and freedom are enjoyed by everyone everywhere.

All our work is based on hard evidence – carrying out our own independent and detailed investigations into human rights abuses across the world by a dedicated band of professional trained researchers and campaigners – and we use our information and analysis as the basis for lobbying governments, companies and other decision makers. But perhaps most importantly we depend on people like you, to join hands and stand up to injustice.

We work on some of the biggest injustices across the world – war crimes and attacks on civilians in conflict; the global refugee crisis; discrimination across the world; protecting civil, political, economic and social freedoms; and working to ensure accountability of governments and companies.

And there is much we have achieved over the decades: with countless prisoners of conscience freed, and laws and practices changed. We have some very high profile success stories like Aung Sung Suu Kyi, now the elected leader in neighbouring Myanmar/Burma but mostly thousands of unsung heroes like Albert Woodford, released after 43 years in solitary confinement in the United States. And perhaps the biggest achievement of all – especially from the vantage point of these divisive times – has been creating a community of over seven million members, activists and supporters across borders that stands on common ground and recognises that we are all human beings of equal value.

The power of technology

As it is late December, this is a good time to reflect on the year that has passed. And what a year.

The upheavals of India’s demonetisation story have been matched by plenty of political earthquakes and chaos across the world.

From the perspective of human rights, it has been a catastrophic year in many ways.

It was a year when the Syrian conflict passed its fifth anniversary and we saw vast numbers of new civilian deaths, including in Aleppo these past days. The conflict in Syria has caused at least 250,000 deaths and forced more than half the population to leave their homes.

A year when Sudan’s leader dropped chemical weapons on his own people in Darfur and conflict continued to spiral in Yemen, South Sudan and Afghanistan.

A year when world leaders spectacularly shirked responsibility for the worsening global refugee crisis, even as 22 million people globally remained displaced. Ten countries – which account for just 2.5 percent of the global economy – are hosting more than half the world’s refugees.

A year when poisonous identity politics gained ground in many parts of the world and attacks on people trying to defend the rights of others grew at an alarming rate. And much more besides.

So I am glad to be standing in front of you, some of the brightest tech minds in the world, to talk about how your skills can help shape a better tomorrow.

In the face of all the challenges in the world, the potential of technology to contribute towards addressing some of these intractable problems looms ever larger. The promise of technology to drive social and economic progress is immense – from advances in medicine to expanding access to education to enabling access to basic services. The power of the internet and mobile communications have revolutionised information flows, transparency and more.

But it also drives great uncertainty and fear for the future. Technology facilitates the darkest of human behaviours and automation brings new threats. The powers of replicability, scale and anonymity that technology now offers is unprecedented.

So the issue is not what can technology do for us, it is what we want technology to do for us.

And this is the question I want to address today: is the trajectory in technology towards social and economic progress; peace, justice and freedom? Or is technology simply an enabler of ever more efficient repression and inequity?

Just as in the present we see a combination of hope and challenges, so it will be in the future, though on a grander scale. Huge technological advances will ask big questions of our ethical and legal standards. Emerging technologies from artificial intelligence to robotics to biotechnology will have a radical impact on societies and significantly disrupt many aspects of our lives. They present great opportunities, but also create significant risks. They pose questions about what kinds of societies we want to live in.

We must act now to answer that challenge – technologists, businesses, governments and people together.

I will speak about technology in relation to four areas: technology for freedom; technology for dignity; technology for equity and inclusion; and technology for peace and justice. In each of them, I want to celebrate the huge advantages that technology has brought to human rights; but equally it is important that we do this with our eyes wide open, open to the challenges and threats that come with it.

Technology for freedom

Let me begin with technology for freedom.

The freedom given to us by technology can feel extremely liberating: to communicate, to get around, to get things done. I strongly believe for example that access to mobile devices to women in India and in our region of South Asia has been a huge contributor to empowering them. Just as liberation theology opened minds and opportunities to the poor and disenfranchised some decades ago, now we have liberation technology.

But there is a dark side too.

Mumbai is no stranger to deadly attacks, such as 26 November eight years ago. How many of those 164 people who died could still be alive today if the attackers had been apprehended before they launched their deadly assault? Could we ever put a price on that? What would ordinary Mumbaikars or Indian citizens give to ensure it never happens again?

If only there were answers to those questions. But the relationship between security and freedom is a very live issue here in Mumbai and in more and more parts of the world.

We crave security for ourselves and our loved ones and communities. And the more the state knows about us, the more likely we will be safe – that’s what we are told. But where do we draw a line? Can we ever accept that the price of our safety is our freedom?

Following the massacre eight years ago, the Government of India took several steps to guard against similar attacks. One of those steps was speeding up the expansion of India’s massive surveillance system.

As some of you will know, one of the tools the government uses is something called the Central Monitoring System or CMS. Once fully operational, that system is expected to be able to listen and tape phone conversations, read emails and text messages, monitor posts on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, and track searches on Google.

Unlike say in the US, where Edward Snowden’s revelations cast a bright spotlight on state surveillance, very little is actually known about India’s surveillance system. In May this year, the central government declared that the CMS is already up and running in Delhi and right here in Mumbai.

We don’t really know what the CMS is capable of, what kind of safeguards it has, and how much it values our privacy. There is no law enacted to specifically regulate the CMS. There doesn’t appear to be any independent oversight of the CMS, and the privacy concerns it raises have not been properly discussed at all in Parliament.

This is not restricted to India. When governments around the world learned about the surveillance capabilities of the US and UK governments after the Snowden revelations they wanted to have the same powers. Prices of technology keep falling and what seems like extraordinarily advanced technology today will be trivial tomorrow. We should expect that every government will seek more powerful and more intrusive surveillance powers – to have more knowledge or control over information – this in their DNA.

This is not new for us in India. Sultan Alauddin Khilji, you may recall, was renowned in the late 13th century for ruling India through an intricate network of spies that even went into the households of nobles.

Last year we in Amnesty learnt that the UK government was spying on us, and we have taken them to court for it. Recently, the UK has passed one of the most draconian surveillance laws ever seen.

Because while we recognise that targeted, regulated surveillance can be an important tool in preventing and investigating crime, the new wave of mass unregulated surveillance is very dangerous. If left unchecked, it threatens the very essence of an open, accountable and innovative society.

Sometimes we hear that people no longer want any privacy. In an age where everyone shares everything online, where we voluntarily open up every aspect of our lives to the scrutiny of our friends and acquaintances and people we have never met, what meaning does the concept of privacy have? Then there is the line that if you don’t have anything to hide, why are you against being spied on?

But this is simply not true. First, everyone draws a line somewhere. You wouldn’t accept a state agent sitting in your bedroom, listening to your most private conversations. But every time you speak on your phone, or even in earshot of your phone’s microphone, that could be exactly what you are doing. You don’t want your personal relationship information to be pried on, you don’t want everybody to know what you think of them, you don’t want your health information in the public domain. Just last week there were serious questions about the security of financial and e-transactions in India; you expect that to be private and secure. Second, there is a big difference between what you voluntarily allow to be in the public domain, compared to being spied on without your permission or knowledge.

The knock-on effects of this could be much bigger than we realise now. Let’s imagine for a moment if we had a world – and we’re very close to this – where everything everyone did, said or wrote was tracked, recorded and analysed.

What would happen? Would a journalist be able to uncover government or corporate corruption? Would a brave doctor be able to report on hidden war crimes? Would you, in this room, be able to challenge the accepted scientific consensus even if it were wrong? Or would innovation die, crushed by an omnipresent surveillance society where every time you deviate from the norm, even person that someone behaves in a way that is different gets marked.

Surveillance has its place in a free and accountable society – when it is used sparingly, when needed and necessary. Most importantly, it has to be used only where there is a real possibility of crime and against people who are suspects. But not against everyone, for no good reason except that it can be done. Surveillance has to be targeted, necessary and proportional and with formal approval by independent judicial authorities. Accompanied by the right to be challenged and the right to remedy.

If you know you’re constantly being watched, you might behave differently, you might speak differently. Eventually, you might stop yourself from thinking differently. A surveillance society is a static society where taking risk comes at a heavy price – fit with the norm and you won’t have any problems. Deviate, innovate and you will be suspect. Is this what we want for our future? An Orwellian nightmare?

This is such an urgent question because we’re quickly moving in that direction. In the next decade tens of millions of connected devices and hundreds of billions sensors will be in our homes, roads, hospitals and even our clothes. There will be no hiding in the internet of things. Unless technology is built to protect privacy now and the right laws and regulatory frameworks are put in place, we will wake up a few years from now to find privacy no longer exists.

Which is why encryption has become so critical. It is essential to information security whether you are a bank or a consumer or a government or a human rights defender. Encryption protects our information against digital attacks. We believe that encryption is a key enabler of the right to privacy and freedom of expression with a multiplier effect on other rights.

Companies have no excuse not to use encrypted technology. Our recent ranking of messaging apps showed that Skype, Snapchat and Blackberry Messenger are lagging behind WhatsApp and Facebook. We commend Apple for standing up to the FBI on encryption of the iPhone. Governments have to stop undermining encryption, and thereby cyber security and human rights.

One final point on this issue. We believe that there has to be maximum privacy when it comes to the rights of individuals and maximum transparency when it comes to governments and any other institutions on issues of public interest. This is why we have recently called on President Obama to pardon Snowden before he finishes his term in the next month.

Technology for dignity

The second issue I want to discuss is the power of technology to ensure dignity – or take it away.

We all know how great the internet has been for freedom of speech, for giving people a voice. But I can tell you from personal experience, if you’re talking about human rights on Twitter you need to have thick skin. I am the Secretary General of the biggest human rights movement in the world, I am a man. That’s a privileged position. So I get my share of attacks from trolls of course – but it’s nothing compared to what happens to many women who speak out online.

They are students, journalists, movie stars, or women who just want to use their voice to stand up to discrimination. But whether you’re a famous celebrity or one of the countless women in India who stand up to sexual violence or domestic violence – women get it much worse. Rape threats, death threats, being called names and abused, threatened with acid attacks.

In the UK, Carolyn Criado-Perez is a journalist who campaigned for the Bank of England to reinstate female historical figures on their banknotes. She won her campaign and although she was initially bombarded with congratulatory messages on Twitter, she soon began to receive multiple threats of sexual violence and death threats.

In her case, the police were able to find two perpetrators who were ultimately prosecuted and imprisoned for the part they played in the campaign against her. Twitter shut down the accounts of the perpetrators but that’s as far as they have gone – there is nothing to stop the same people opening up another account and doing the same thing.

Qandeel Baloch, the young woman in neighbouring Pakistan who dared to be different, was even less fortunate. She was killed in July this year by her own family member for using social media with over a million Facebook followers to express herself freely.

A recent report by the UN found that almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. And despite the rapidly growing numbers, only a quarter of the 86 countries they investigated are taking any appropriate action.

Violence against women online is part of a continuum of gender-based violence against women offline. It contributes to a spiral of discrimination and violence.  We simply have to fight this.

For one thing, platforms need to get much better at understanding and tracking abuse. They should publish transparent, up-to-date figures about the reports of abuse, and what they’ve done about them. Threats of violence have to be taken seriously. You can’t just ignore it because it increases your traffic.

And tech companies need to raise awareness and speak out against abusive behaviour.

More important than this is what we can all do: that means standing up for gender equality and speaking out against discrimination, and violence against women and girls, whether it’s offline or on the internet.

But before you call me out on this, let me clarify that while we are all for free speech, we would always be against hate speech and incitement of violence. The bar for determining hate speech, however, is deliberately pretty high in international law, so that governments don’t use it as an excuse to silence their detractors and curb freedom of expression.

Technology for equity and inclusion

The third area I want to talk about is technology for equity and inclusion.

With the advent of robotics and artificial intelligence, there are both real and perceived fears of job losses. Estimates by the World Bank of the risk of jobs being replaced by automation varies from 35% in the UK to 85% in Ethiopia. The OECD average is 57 % and in India it is placed at 60%. Of course, these are only estimates and nobody can get a precise estimate of the net job losses as there will obviously also be new jobs created. But the point is we cannot underestimate the risks. Don’t forget that for rich countries with small populations and low fertility rates, automation is a survival strategy. In May this year, Foxconn, one of the biggest electronics manufacturers in the world, replaced 60,000 workers in one factory with robots. So this is no more a hypothetical. Driverless cars and cashless economies simply mean fewer traditional jobs, don’t they?

And it is clear that those who take advantage of new technologies are always the elites, while the price is paid by the poor. And the cost of not managing this inequality seems to have been at least partially behind dramatic results like Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US. These campaigns have also coincided with using hate crimes against immigrants who are treated as scapegoats for social and economic grievances. And we may see much higher barriers to entry for trade and immigration in future.

Political, economic and technological changes can, as you can see, create great risks and opportunities for human rights. In this era of unprecedented technological advances, those who work on technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetic engineering have a great responsibility to ensure that the technologies are developed to be safe and to respect people’s rights.

Algorithms learn from us, and we shouldn’t be naïve to think of them as socially objective. All the biases that we plant into them can grow and be reinforced.

But technology should aspire to much more than “do no harm”; technology should be designed to do good, and lots of it. And we can’t just sit back and wait for this to happen. We must anticipate and plan how the technologies we develop will help to foster the kind of societies we want to live in.

I know that many of you here in IIT are super conscious of this. But I urge you to be deliberate about the choices you make today and in the future. The technology you have in your hands has huge power to widen inequalities, or to bridge them. The digital divide has already cut off vast swathes of people from the social and economic fast-track; but technology can also be used to make immeasurable improvements to those in danger of being left behind.

Decent housing, adequate food, clean water, reliable healthcare, the freedom to hold different opinions and to practice one’s beliefs. These are things that technology can protect and help achieve. By designing technology in a way that respect people’s rights, by building products that make people’s lives better and more dignified, you will help make this vision a reality.  You can help build digital bridges instead of digital divides.

Technology for peace and justice

Lastly, let me talk about technology for peace and justice.

The world badly needs new ideas for how to bring about peace. Conflict has proliferated and the laws of war horribly flouted.

And technology has played a huge role in this. Perhaps nothing more so than the use of drones. There cannot possibly be any starker illustration of the colossal imbalance of power than that of drones hovering above helpless populations fearful that their lives could be snatched away at any instant.

In Pakistan and Yemen, US drone strikes have taken the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians. Grandmother Mamana Bibi was picking vegetables in her field in northwest Pakistan one sunny day in October 2012 when a missile blasted from a drone obliterated her before the very eyes of her family.

The secretive US drone programme, which has expanded hugely under President Obama, gives the CIA licence to kill well beyond the reach of courts. And despite some recent reforms to bring transparency, there remains almost no accountability to the public – never mind the victims. For them, redress is an impossible dream.  If you think of the dangers of asymmetric war that drones already offer – an American soldier virtually playing video games from the safety of his headquarters – the advanced weapon systems that are currently in the pipeline will make drones look primitive.

The power of technology to kill is almost limitless. But there are subtler threats too. I spoke about social bias in algorithms earlier; let me now talk about predictive policing, as an example of the threat here. Predictive policing has already become a reality in the some countries in the West. There is nothing new about law enforcement agencies using intelligence to identify where a crime is being planned and seeking to stop it before it occurs. But predictive policing takes a very significant step back from there, to identify people or groups who it believes could commit a crime before they have any actual intention of doing it.

Based on existing intelligence about past crimes it uses artificial intelligence to identify the likelihood and location of crimes before they occur. But there has already been a lot of criticism for reinforcing existing biases against racial and religious minorities. How can algorithms be designed in such a way that the possibility of discrimination or bias being built in? And even more fundamentally, if people are treated as criminals when they have not even had the intent to commit crime, our notions of innocence and guilt are completely subverted.

Mobilising for good

Yet the power of technology to usher in justice and build peace is equally limitless. So the proposal I am making is not to be luddite, but to be erudite.

Just like the internet allowed companies to reach customers across the world, it made human rights campaigns reach people across borders. We live in the most exciting time for technology. The pace of innovation is breathtaking and the stuff that’s being developed in labs across the world is just mindblowing. So how can some of these new technologies help protect human rights?

Take for example blockchains. There are start-ups developing platforms to track the provenance of diamonds and agricultural products to enable secure traceability and reduce the risk of these commercial coming from conflict areas or on the back of labour exploitation. If blockchain technology can make the tracking of products in supply chains more robust, then it can help reduce human rights abuses in international trade.

Looking at new imaging technology, imagine if you attached hyperspectral cameras to drones and trained communities to use the drones and maybe even print spare parts with 3D printers. You would empower them with the tools to monitor environmental destruction themselves and stand up to corporations who destroy not just the environment but livelihoods.

Could we develop an Artificial Intelligence system that allows us to crowdsource and analyse information about human rights abuses? Imagine for example there was a peaceful protest countered with unjustified police violence. What if we had an AI with advanced natural language processing that communicated with people, allowing them to submit information instantaneously, responding to them contextually and cross-checking information among hundreds or thousands of people in real time? Then the system would produce an analysis of the events rapidly and make this synthesis of eyewitness accounts available to the media in a matter of minutes.

All these ideas – from using blockchains to AI may or may not work, but we cannot innovate without trying, without failing, then succeeding. So I invite you to do that – to innovate for human rights.

So is technology a force for good, or a tool of repression?

Ultimately the answer to that question is up to us. The choice is ours. As the leading technologists of tomorrow, it is up to you. What choices will you make? What is your dream for technology? Is it a dream of wealth and fame for a few, or a dream for a better society?

Amnesty’s seven million members around the world are a huge resource to tap into, and we are finding more and more ways to do that through technology.

One way we are doing that is by using their combined processing power to build a stronger case against Sudan’s President Bashir for war crimes in Sudan – exposing and drawing more attention to some of the world’s gravest abuses.

After a report we released earlier this year on the government of Sudan’s assault on its own people in Darfur, including horrific and banned chemical weapons and scorched earth tactics, we invited people to join our microtasking platform called Decode Darfur. Right from your smartphone, you could analyse thousands of square kilometres of satellite imagery of remote parts of Darfur where chemical weapon attacks may have taken place. It was an ambitious and revolutionary project which invited ordinary people right into the heart of our core research work. In just 10 days after launch we had over 28,600 people from 147 countries visiting the platform and contributing 9,065 hours – the equivalent of a full time staff member working two years.

Technology is at its very finest when it enables us to be more human, more humane. When it empowers us and brings out the best in us. When it stokes in us a desire to live in peace and justice, and build a better world.

So let me finish with another video, which invites you to be part of our global movement of solidarity, of taking injustice personally. As you watch it, I would like you to think about the choices you will make.

If you want to learn more, please sign up and join one of our campaigns. And if you want to contribute your skills, there is a link on the screen which will take you to a website where you can register. Amnesty India already has around 75,000 individuals supporting us. Come join us and use your skills for freedom, dignity, equality and justice.

I look forward to joining with you, and I thank you.