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High Technology Is Advancing The Cause Of Human Rights


Aired 4/4/11

High technology, from satellite imaging to smartphones, is starting to help in the effort toward worldwide human rights. On our monthly segment on ethics in science and technology, we'll discuss how scientific innovations are helping oppressed people and the organizations monitoring human rights abuses.

High technology, from satellite imaging to smartphones, is starting to help in the effort toward worldwide human rights. On our monthly segment on ethics in science and technology, we'll discuss how scientific innovations are helping oppressed people and the organizations monitoring human rights abuses.

Protester holds sign at Free Egypt rally.

Above: Protester holds sign at Free Egypt rally.

GUESTS: Michael Kalichman is director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. He is Director of the Research Ethics Program at UC San Diego

Dr. Eric Michelsen is a physicist who lectures at UCSD. He is also a volunteer member of Amnesty International USA's Executive Director's Leadership Council.

Public Info: The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology forum on the topic SCIENCE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS takes place this Wednesday at 5:30 at the Rueben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When technology was developed that allowed satellites to show detailed images of specific spots on earth, the motive was probably not to expose dictators abusing their people. And smart phones were not developed to help oppressed populations meet up for a demonstration. But in many cases, cutting edge technology is being used for the purposes of expanding human rights around the world. In our regular series of discussions on ethics in science and technology, we explore how science is advancing the cause of human rights of I'd like to welcome my guests, Michael Kalichman is director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, he's director of the Research Ethics Program at UC San Diego, and Mike, morning.

KALICHMAN: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor Eric Michelsen is a physicist who lectures at UCSD, he's also a volunteer member of Amnesty International USA's executive directors' leadership council. Doctor Michelsen, welcome.

MICHELSEN: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you, if I can, Eric Michelsen. And how did amnesty international begin noticing that technology was playing a part in efforts towards human rights?

MICHELSEN: Well, amnesty international's been studying these issues for a long time. And they have a person there who did his PHD research work in applying computer models for predicting forced migration patterns in order to direct aid most effectively and even allow early deployment of aid in a more efficient way, with the hope of intercepting people with the highest need. Working together with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they got a grant from the oak foundation to further science for human rights development. And so now the triple A S and amnesty international USA work together, and they each have their science for human rights groups, that focus specifically on that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So instead of just kind of trying to figure out where these migrations of population is going, and where possibly might be the best place to make sure that aid was available, now using technology, amnesty international can actually track migrating populations.

MICHELSEN: Yes. They can not only track migrating populations using, for example, satellite imaging, but this particular model allows them to predict ahead of time where the people are likely to migrate. And it's essentially an agent based model where you simulate people and their rational thinking, and it includes factors such as geography and mountains and rivers and things like that. And it predicts likely migration patterns.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. Now, this is I think rather the advanced model of how technology is being used. Let's bring it back to the cellphones, if we can. Because they do seem -- I think we've all noticed how ubiquitous they are at political rallies in other nations, if there's some kind of political incident. I want to ask you Beth. Let me start with you, Mike Kalichman, have they transformed the nature of political action, do you think?

KALICHMAN: Well, I think it would be hard to argue otherwise. We see them everywhere of I just heard a report this morning about somebody in Syria who was in a mosque and this was some sort of turmoil going on, and everybody pulled out their cellphones, and started taking pictures of what was going on and recording what was going on, and he was tweeting and then taken away we the authorities. Which just shows so readily the INTERACTION between getting the word out, and in an authoritarian regime, wanting to try and close it down.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, Eric, how do human rights networks and activists use that kind of technology, the cellphone, the smart phone technology in order to not only gain information but disseminate information?

MICHELSEN: Well, primarily, cellphones are used as a source of information using a method called crowd sourcing, which is a large group of separated individuals each making their own reports, and contributions about events that are happening on the ground. And now with cellphones, those are often in real time, within minutes. Sometimes a video can be posted from a cellphone directly to YouTube within minutes of it actually happening. And in many cases, the communications technology happens so fast that each advanced governments can't shut it down. So for example, in China, a dissident was murdered, likely by government operatives, and his photo, the photo of his body was distributed throughout the world before even the Chinese government had time to suppress it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I know in the past when organizations like amnesty international and other human rights organizations would bring up certain atrocities, murders, incidents of oppression, often they were not readily believed. They were thought to have an agenda among certain governments. How, I wonder how has this kind of, you know, here's a picture or here's an eyewitness account. That must have completely turned around this kind of attitude that people might have had in the past.

MICHELSEN: Absolutely. There's nothing like photographic evidence to convince people of the legitimacy of a claim. And essentially, the goal of these technologies today is that there is no more privacy for human rights abusers, they've always relied on the privacy that they can affect behind their own borders. And now they can no longer rely on that. And that's our goal that no one will ever again commit human rights abuses in privacy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Dr. Eric Michelsen, he's a physicist who lectures at UCSD, also a volunteer member of amnesty international's USA's executive director's leadership council. And Michael Kalichman is also my guest, director for the center of ethics in science and technology. We're talking about the use of science to advance the cause of human rights. And Mike, one of the points of this is that it's sort of just by happenstance, nobody really designed this as a human rights methodology. Let's say like satellite imaging wasn't put into effect in order to allow human rights activists to take a look what was going on in a certain country.

KALICHMAN: That's right one of the remarkable things about this, is that it's so -- the technology is so incredible, often developed for pleasure, for just communication. And now we have this opportunity that nobody anticipated. And sort of speaking from the ethics perspective, you might say, well, this technology has just turned out to be wonderful. Therefore there must not be any ethical questions. It's just good news that we can now shed light on human rights abuses. The risk here is to think more deeply about what we want to do with this. In this country, we often have conversations about the defense between security and privacy. This might be great for security. And we might say this is wonderful this could happen. But what if other countries or our country said we want to put certain kinds of control on communication through the internet? We want to know and be able to readily identify who is tweeting and who is sending out this video. At the extent that that privacy is violated, we increase the risk that we'll had been shut down the very victims that we want from this technology. This is something that people need to be thinking closely about. Some people say, I won't do anything wrong. So I don't care if the government knows what I'm doing. But you might care if you have to respond to government inappropriate actions.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. Doctor Eric Michelsen, one of the things that you point to in listing the things that have helped human rights activists, are the kinds of technology that is aiding amnesty international, for instance, you talk about geospatial mapping. What is geospatial mapping and how is it used?

MICHELSEN: Geospatial mapping is a method of data visualization that essential he just puts a map on the display and marks events on that map in various forms. A key aspect of geospatial mapping is that the user can instantly select different choices for how the data is to be displayed. For example, incidents can be color coated by their occurrence in time. And they can also be color coated according to their severity, or they can be both color coated and size coated. A bigger circle indicates a bigger event, for example. And this allows ready identification of trends and patterns that can often be used to, one, anticipate future events, and two, identify the sources and causes of the events that are being visualized at the time.


MICHELSEN: Oh, I'm sorry, that's just at a development, in computer technology and software that's allowed this to happen very, very quickly. These kinds of choices, user selectable options for how they want to see the data displayed. Of it can even be animated so you see a sequence over time like many of the fire maps when we have some of the fires, and you could see the advancing front of the fire over time in a time lapse sequence generated by a computer.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how much of a difference does that make when, list say, amnesty international is trying to show some sort of a governing body, look, this is what's happening in a certain region of the world, as opposed to writing a paper and giving a lecture? It must really make if so much more visceral and so much more compelling.

MICHELSEN: Absolutely. It's a huge step forward in both informing the public, and informing policy makers and public officials about what's happening in a way that's really hard to ignore.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to, again, from this very advanced sort of technology back to the kind of technology people use every day. We've heard an awful lot about social networking sites, Facebook and twitter being used by people who are trying to set up political protests and so forth. How are they being used, Eric, by human rights activists?

MICHELSEN: So far they haven't been used on the ground by -- very much by organized human rights activists, such as amnesty international or many other human rights organizations around the world. Part of the surprise and the novelty now has been the spontaneous generation of groups of people who can get together and communicate over the Internet in ways that were not possible before they technology existed. So the existence of cellphones, for example, is hugely important to that, because many of these things are occurring in places where they have almost no electricity, they don't have any wires Internet connections, and the cell phone is both their connection to the Internet and to the world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you make the case that in some regions of the world, having a cellphone, being able to possess a cellphone is welcoming a human right in and of itself.

MICHELSEN: Yes, I think it touches on many different aspects of human rights many of which were touched on in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was 50 ratified in 1948, and has since been updated over time. It affects on access to healthcare, if you have a medical emergency and you live 50 miles from the nearest hospital, and there's no electricity and no wires, how do you notify people about that medical emergency? Doing business, economic rights, how do you negotiate business when it costs you as much as you would make in a week to drive that 50 miles to town? You need to be able to set up your business contacts and your product and goods exchanges ahead of time through the Internet in order to achieve that. And of course, as a method of communicating and documenting human rights violations that are -- may be occurring in your village or nearby. So cellular phones, and the cameras, and the video technology that goes with them touches on many aspects of human rights.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mike, you brought up a little bit about the flip side of this technology. And I want to talk a little bit more about that. We have heard that as demonstrators in various countries try to set up their demonstrations and protests and so forth, and try to get this network of information going that some governments just shut these networks down. Is that -- if people start relying on that too heavily, is that a problem that you see in the future?

KALICHMAN: Well, I think the good news is, what Eric described earlier, as this technology is so ubiquitous and it's so easy to get information out, it's going to be hard for governments to simply shut everything down. Some will try, and I think that tension between the government and -- we're talking about a dictatorial or suppressive government, and their population, that tension is one that will constantly be sort of an evolutionary battle, and either side will probably see changes. I think when we come back to the ethics question, it's for us to -- in this country, we can ask ourselves, do we want people to be able to freely communicate without fear of being watched? And what does it mean without fear of being watched? How secure can we make it in and that's where the ethics questions comes in. How do we want to act to protect the technology that can be so useful?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Especially if you change the idea of people having the access to all this information from people who were working towards democracy to perhaps eye terrorist group.

KALICHMAN: Right. You could take everything we talk about today and say look at how wonderfully it could be used, to have 30000 people gather to protest almost within minutes because they've heard from one another through a social media technology. Well, we could equally well say, what would happen if somebody who had a terrorist goal in mind that they could readily communicate? The technology is wonderful and makes things happen more quickly, and as people say in computing that it sometimes makes it possible for you to make errors more quickly. But this is an example where we need to be that you feel about how we want to proceed with the technology and what controls we want and what controls we don't want in mace.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Eric Michelsen, how are world organizations keeping up with these changes? I mean, in other words how does this change how NGOs might go try to help populations?

MICHELSEN: Well, in the last few years now, the technology -- there are starting to be smaller groups that are specifically developing technology for human rights. And primarily that's come in the form of software now that's an integrated platform for collecting and disseminating information from the various sources that we've mentioned, from the satellites, from the cellphones, and producing data visualization maps that are available on the web. And so there are -- amnesty international, and the triple A S are working together on improving those software systems, and collaborating with some of the system developers. Some of which were developed really in someone's living room by just a handful of individuals who thought, hey, we could do something useful here. And in fact, an earthquake map of the Haiti earthquake last year was put together pie ten people in their living room. I've seen a photograph of the ten people sitting in their living room setting up the network server for this. And within ten days, many of the international aid organizations were siting that map set up in the living room as the most authoritative and comprehensive map of crisis information available. U.S. authorities sited that map as being directly responsible for saving hundreds of lives because they could direct aid to where it was needed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's remarkable.

MICHELSEN: So NGOs are working to foster this kind of development and they're trying to collaborate with as many people as they can.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Mark is calling from Spring Valley. Good morning, mark, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you for taking my call. One thing that I really need to mention, if we're talking about technology as advancing human rights, we also have to look at technology, how it's taken away human rights when we use things like predators to kill people from the sky based on hearsay or associations. They're not engaged in any battle, yet we're killing them from the sky. And I think that is removing human rights.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, mark. And I'm gonna ask you to address that. That's a very powerful comment.

KALICHMAN: Yeah, it is. And we don't want to assume here that because we have a technology that it can only be used for good. Without pointing fingers at any particular technology or individual, that is always a possibility. And that's why we ask these questions. The idea of autonomous or semiautonomous craft that allow us to -- or others, to kill without having to be there raise a lot of very difficult questions and challenging questions about what it means to go to war and how we want to deal with it. This is something we've dealt with in other programs in exploring our ethics forum, and I'm sure it's something we'll return to. It's an important comment.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Would you see that in the same vain as what you're talking about, in other words the negative side of how technology is being used or would you see that, Eric, as part of something completely different from when you're talking about?

MICHELSEN: I think it's related. And I think it is a very important comment. And there's -- that's something we should have discussions about. And we should keep our eyes -- we should keep our minds focused on that possibility as well like virtually every advancing capability in technology, it can be used for good things, and it can be used for not so good things, and in fact some terrible things. Over all, though, I think the transfer of communication power to individuals in societies is probably a net benefit. One of the benefits, for example, is that at least now society knows about these predators, where three decades ago, U2s could fly over countries and no one even knew what they were doing, and now it's become harder to hide what's happening from the people, and there's nothing that cleans like sunshine.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there any technology on the horizon that either of you are aware of that might actually be used to expose human rights abuses or make political action easier?

MICHELSEN: I think the next -- maybe the next big thing is related to government controls over the cellular networks in, I think, vat light phones actually will become important. Because satellite phones cannot be shut down at the turn of a switch the way cellular networks can. And for a while, satellite phones appeared to be the up and coming technology maybe 15, 20 years ago, and then cellular networks kind of took over because for ordinary terrestrial based communication they're more efficient. But in terms of secure global communications, satellite phones actually have a new place now. And so that's a technology that I look forward to continuing to be developed. And there's really no way that anyone can shut down a sat line phone system. Only in the most extreme cases if they were to disrupt the satellite itself, which is one, extremely technically complicated; and two, virtually an act of war against the international community.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. We're gonna have to leave it there. But I want to let everyone know that this conversation is going to continue at the Center for Ethics and Science and Technology forum. The topic is science for human rights. It takes place this Wednesday at 530 at the Ruben H. Fleet science center in Balboa Park, and the public is welcome. Mike Kalichman, thank you.

KALICHMAN: Thank you, Maureen, as always.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor Eric Michelsen, thank you for coming in.

MICHELSEN: My pleasure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment on anything you've heard, please go on-line, Days.

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