Decentralized Technology for Human Rights Archiving and Activism

Worldwide, there are 5.5 billion mobile phone users, more than 5 billion people with internet access, and nearly 5 billion using social media. We are constantly online, using our smartphones for work, school, shopping, and more. But beyond these everyday uses, people in many parts of the world are increasingly turning to phones and social media to document human rights abuses in the hopes of bringing accountability and justice. Yet, there are still significant challenges to citizen journalism – from access to technology to how to safely preserve and verify multimedia content.

OpenArchive works to protect digital and human rights by conducting and sharing co-research, building, secure tools, and offering guides and training to ensure the long-term preservation of mobile media evidence. Over the last decade, OpenArchive has worked with human rights activists and organizations around the world to build responsive, secure, and ethical archiving technologies that advance justice and accountability.

OpenArchive started working with FFDW in 2021 to explore how decentralized technologies can support secure archival tools and educate global organizations about the benefits of decentralized storage protocols. OpenArchive has built a global network spanning Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Eastern Europe, and North America.

The Power of the Decentralized Web

Decentralized technologies help break down the silos that currently exist around mobile media. Historically, most mobile media is stored on social media sites and other centralized platforms that have no commitment to verification or preservation – ultimately threatening access to and availability of that media. Beyond the threats of data loss, media manipulation is an increasing concern, which is only becoming more prevalent with the proliferation of AI. According to a 2022 report from VMWare, deep fake attacks rose 13% in 2021, and 66% of cybersecurity professionals reported seeing at least one.

Decentralized technology offers solutions to many of the challenges presented by today's centralized technology with four distinct benefits:

  • Improves Redundancy: It decreases the potential for data loss and accessibility issues by offering distributed, redundant, long-term preservation of the media.
  • Bolsters Future Access to Media: The media redundancy (or multiple copies of media that are distributed and accessible across different servers) prevents media from being on one platform, subject to a single point of failure presented by today's corporate-run social media platforms, thus providing a greater opportunity for access to it in the future.
  • Makes Media More Verifiable: It improves the media's verifiability, provenance, and chain of custody with blockchain and other ledger-type technologies.
  • Increases Security: Creators are offered more security and protection because the DWeb provides pseudonymity and anonymity.

Since 2022, OpenArchive has worked with Decentralized Archivist Communities (DACs) to support and promote efforts to decentralize, archive, verify, and preserve evidentiary mobile media evidence. So far, there are seven partnerships, with DACs in Iraq (Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM-Iraq), Sudan (organization wishes to remain anonymous), Ukraine (Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG)), the United States (People’s Media Record), Ecuador (ALDEA Foundation), Cuba (Cubalex), and Mexico (Data Civica). OpenArchive assesses its partners' needs, limitations, and threats; runs security and archival workshops; assists with internal documentation and workflows; and provides funding to support their activities and archives.

OpenArchive’s work with these groups is largely conducted through user persona building and other co-research and development methods outlined in the human-rights-centered design (HRCD) methodology, allowing OpenArchive to discover and gain deeper insight into the community's structural harms and address them ethically and responsively.

Currently, OpenArchive is concluding its needs assessment phase with their active DACs. While each organization and region has unique needs, threats, and challenges, this research also shows the overlap in needs.

  • In Ukraine, OpenArchive and its local Ukrainian partner KHPG identified four key gaps in resources and capacities that shape their everyday workflow: a lack of technical and financial resources (especially with respect to file storage systems); imperfect technical operations of database systems; incomplete information regarding attacks and hostilities; and poor communication due inconsistent technical capacities and capabilities among colleagues.
  • In Iraq, challenges included a lack of technical resources and training (especially with respect to digital security and protecting sensitive data); outdated and insecure devices and technologies; and gaps in legal protections.
  • And in Sudan, there are challenges with insecure archival practices, technologies, and software that don't prioritize privacy and a lack of security training and resources.

This fall, OpenArchive and the DACs will begin trainings and workshops about how to effectively use the Save app.

Secure Mobile Archiving: Share, Archive, Verify, Encrypt

OpenArchive also helps DACs implement and integrate the Save app with their archives. Save, which stands for share, archive, verify, and encrypt, helps eyewitnesses and citizen journalists preserve, protect, authenticate, and amplify critical records of human rights abuses. As DAC programming advances and more research becomes available, the Save app and OpenArchive adapts to these activists' needs through user-experience and user-interface updates, localization, creation of additional training materials, and new feature additions.

DAC communities use Save to protect themselves and their media from threats such as surveillance, moderation, phone seizures, media manipulation, and more. With Save, activists can maintain agency over their archives with ease and security, empowering them to seek justice, transparency, and accountability.

Activists can share and archive their media by uploading files to a secure, cloud-based server such as Nextcloud, a public trust like the Internet Archive, and more commonly used backends like Dropbox. In the future, Save plans to incorporate decentralized storage options, like the Filecoin network. Users can also add a Creative Commons license to enable free distribution, use, and repurposing of their work by other activists, scholars, historians, and legal aids. All media remains safe and organized, as multiple copies are archived on secure servers, and in-app folders keep the archive easily accessible.

Activists can verify media with sha256 hashes and ProofMode, a tool from another FFDW project partner Guardian Project, that employs sensor-driven metadata, hardware fingerprinting, cryptographic signing, and third-party notaries to enable authentication. ProofMode also leverages the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) and Filecoin network as a decentralized backend.

Lastly, media is encrypted and uploaded over Transport Layer Security (TLS), and users can further enhance security by using Orbot or Onion Browser, mobile Tor apps that provide anonymity and security.

Save streamlines protection and preservation for DACs and other human rights defenders because its core features are based on community input and a commitment to digital inclusion. Users are always in full control of their media, from upload to archive, without interference from centralized intermediaries. Security is multi-layered and guaranteed to protect against interception from bad actors. Documentation is preserved for generations on platforms like the Internet Archive. Content is licensed by the uploader and has a transparent chain of custody as other activists build upon it. Most importantly, Save is easy to use and provides streamlined access by separating content into dedicated folders organized by users or organizations.

OpenArchive is currently conducting research to determine the affordances and trade-offs that radical archiving communities could experience while using decentralized storage technologies. Specifically, this research seeks to clarify in what ways decentralized storage will impact Save’s users. Further, it will explore how and whether harms may be mitigated to enable users to reap the benefits of long-term, secure, verifiable decentralized storage for their evidentiary media. Led by Marios Isaakidis and Chrystalleni Loizidou, OpenArchive will post research updates on their site, with a full research paper anticipated in Summer 2024.

To learn more about OpenArchive’s work, visit their website.