When 200 human rights defenders from all over the world gather in Stockholm for Defenders’ Days, it’s our honor to hop a quick flight from Helsinki to join them.
These activists handle highly sensitive information that exposes political corruption, reveals the unlawful conduct of authorities and otherwise threatens the powers that be. This puts their freedom at risk and opens their friends, families and allies up to threats and retaliation.
Often these civil liberties advocates become the target of governmental surveillance — a terrifying position to be in, even in a country that’s supposed to enforce democratic norms. Some of the attendees of the conference weren’t even officially “there” because of restrictions on them by their governments, which forces them to keep any evidence of their visit to Sweden a secret. Many of these brave people have been jailed for their cause, which may be as simple as fighting for the right to criticize their own leaders.
Here are just a few examples of the kind of obstacles these everyday heroes face.
I met a 39-year old Cuban activist who was traveling and being out from his country for the first time in his life. Everything in his hotel room from the bathrobe to the facilities blew his mind. Not only is his life spent in abject poverty, the police often arrest and jail him as he organizes in the name of free expression.
This is why digital freedom and the right to be online is so crucial for the expansion of human rights. The ability to connect is a constant threat to entrenched power that depends on squelching rights.
Internet access in Cuba is extremely restricted, costing as much as $2 per hour to get online. Imagine the cost of that given most of us spend nearly all of our waking life online. Now imagine your entire monthly salary is only $20.
In Uganda, the government seems to want to shut down all social media platforms, fearing an “Arab Spring” like uprising that could threaten the dictatorship.
Our Cyber Security Advisor Erka Koivunen — who spent a decade working on cyber security response for the Finnish government — gave a keynote that described the digital law enforcement advances western countries have built under the premise that they will only be deployed against citizens lawfully. But without proper oversight, these tools can be used for mass surveillance, especially when exported to third-world countries and undemocratic states.
Watch Erka’s talk about what activists need to know about the creeping digital power of states:
“The fact that oppressive governments so desperately seek to limit access to internet and services in foreign countries only serves to confirm how much they fear the freedom of speech,” Erka explained. “They know that they would not hold a chance if people would know better and could organize opposition.”
But there is “light at the end of the tunnel,” Erka told the activists. Technology got us into this mess and it can get us out.
“Never in the history of mankind have we had access to such good encryption, this cheap (free!) and with such ease of use,” he said. “Make good use of it to counter unreasonable invasions of privacy and even threats to your personal well-being and that of your loved ones.”
The audience, especially African representatives, had a lot of questions for Erka. They wanted to know whom to trust and how to find reliable security. Erka emphasized that proper opsec takes into account both the ethics of the company, as well as regulations of the country you choose your partner from.
As citizens of the internet, our freedom is threatened anywhere connectivity is limited in the name of preserving power. It was our honor to meet with these women and men who have devoted their lives to defending the rights we all deserve.