Protecting The Innocent

Human Rights abuse, amnesty torture
CBS/AP
During the conflict in Kosovo, a human rights researcher was passing through a checkpoint when government soldiers discovered the phone numbers of numerous rebel commanders in his notebook.

The incident may have endangered his Kosovo Liberation Army sources.

That's why the researcher, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, wishes that at the time he'd had a new software tool developed expressly for people like him who collect ultra-sensitive information.

Called Martus — Greek for witness — the software promises to make it much easier for wired witnesses to get information out of dangerous situations before it — or they — disappear.

"The best weapon against innocence being murdered is more information, more quickly, more accurately to the right people who can make a difference," said Jim Fruchterman, the soft-spoken president and chief executive of the nonprofit that created Martus, Palo Alto-based Benetech Initiative.

With Martus, human rights workers in the field can interview vulnerable populations then swiftly and anonymously send out reports, thereby reducing the ever-present fear of discovery and reprisal.

It works by encrypting sensitive data — both on researchers' computers and as that data is transmitted to secure server computers in safer faraway locations.

Benetech's mission is to employ cutting-edge technology for social causes, and Martus is open-source software, meaning organizations that use it, such as Human Rights Watch, get access to the underlying code so they can adapt it to their needs.

Because it's a free download, anyone could build a Martus-based application — outlaws as well as do-gooders. But each set of users' data would be secured from outsiders by password protection.

Martus has just been introduced in Manila to the Philippine National Commission on Human Rights and the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates among others, with support from the U.S. State Department and the Asia Foundation — a private nonprofit that fosters democratic initiatives.

After a decade or so of civil unrest and terrorism, people in the Philippines have suffered from some of the worst human rights violations in Asia, by both Filipino soldiers and Abu Sayaff guerrillas, according to Human Rights Watch Asia.

Some human rights advocates believe Martus — which will be rolled out next in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Russia and Guatemala — may be just what's needed to counter anti-democratic regimes.

Jessica Soto of Amnesty International has been trained on Martus and believes it will be useful in the Philippines. Though, of course, no software could solve one of the most vexing problems for rights workers: "There are many areas in conflict situations without phone lines, the Internet or even electricity," said Soto.

The initial version of Martus includes software that must be downloaded onto a field worker's portable computer, said Jagdish Parikh, an online researcher at Human Rights Watch who is working with the new program.

And that restricts filing. Martus would be more useful if users could use it over the Internet via a secure Web browser, Parikh said. That way it could be accessed from Internet cafes.

To safeguard workers in the field, Martus has an on-screen keyboard that can be accessed only by mouse, eliminating the risk that computer key strokes can be monitored.

Martus' biggest strength is its flexibility, Parikh said. Information gathered on servers far from danger zones is protected with varying degrees of security depending on its sensitivity. "Nothing can be hack-proof," Fruchterman noted, "but we're looking at hack-resistant."

The idea was conceived in the early 1990s, after an expose of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador appeared in The New Yorker magazine. In 1981, the Salvadoran military had literally wiped out the village, killing almost 800 people. But it took years for witnesses to summon the courage to speak out, and for details of the massacre to trickle out and reach the attention of the international community.

Martus can help build statistical databases to aid prosecutors gathering evidence of genocide or other crimes against humanity, as occurred in Rwanda in 1994 and the Balkans through the 1990s and beyond.

It's also good for protecting paperwork from more mundane hazards — like the decades worth of paper files a human rights group in Sri Lanka lost to voracious termites.

To build Martus, Fruchterman found an ally in Patrick Ball, an expert in quantitative analysis whose database work helped prosecute Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovec for crimes against humanity.

Beta-testing Martus during a fact-finding mission in Chechnya recently, Bouckaert was cautiously pleased.

He would prefer a system customized to the fields in his organization's existing database, but he said smaller organizations that haven't already organized reams of data would appreciate the Martus design.

And overall, he said, Martus succeeds at its key function: allowing workers in the field to send information in a secure fashion without putting themselves or others at risk.

"This is a very significant step to revolutionizing the work we do."