For the first time, RightsCon was held as a fully online event, which is increasingly common in 2020 because of the pandemic. Although we at Open Culture Foundation (OCF) always look forward to attending the event in person and seeing friends both old and new, it was great to see that 2020 RightsCon would happen online instead of being cancelled.
One of the main challenges when planning a global digital event is the agenda timeline. Since OCF is based in Taipei, Taiwan, most RightsCon sessions happened between 20:00 and 04:00 in our time zone. It is tough to participate after midnight.
What sessions did OCF participate in?
Session topic: "National Digital ID systems in Asia: Mapping considerations of potential benefits and harms"
OCF spoke during this session with partners Jun E, Ming-Syuan Ho and Malaysian lawyer Louis by using the Taiwanese and Malaysian national digital identity (NDID) as an example to provide audiences, particularly Asian participants, with an understanding of NDID systems, as well as providing a space for international experiences.
In Asia, governments are following the trend from European countries and are moving towards implementing NDID systems. Owing to the pandemic, people have become more dependent on the government's epidemic prevention, which relies on private data surveillance and usually involves the digital identity system. To implement policies faster, most governments avoid publicising the risks and advocate the convenience and efficiency of digital identity systems to their citizens.
However, every coin has two sides. The controversial uses of NDID have already surfaced, such as China’s social credit system, which enables digital authoritarianism, or India’s “automation of poverty”, where algorithmic decision making on social welfare has caused death from starvation. In lower income countries, these systems have the potential to impact the lives of millions who are unregistered and have no access to critical services; in higher income countries, they can provide better user experiences and can foster economic growth.
During the session, OCF’s main goal was to raise awareness of the problems related to NDID and discuss possible responses.
Here, we list some important opinions and questions from the RightsCon online chatroom:
“Do you know where all this information is stored? Because here in Brazil, for example, there is a public company responsible for the data of all citizens and there was a big issue some months ago because our government wanted to sell this company to the private sector.”
“The convenience seems to be avoiding issues in the offline world, i.e. waiting in lines at banks, etc. But people in general don't have a good sense about the inconvenience of the consolidation of this information on cards, from identity fraud, to increasing spam and targeted ads, to monitoring your every move. Is anyone working on raising awareness on this?"
“In India, they are already looking at cashing in on the data that gets so generated, by companies and by the government. Personal information is systematically being re-defined as a 'public good' and as a 'resource' to boost the economy.”
“In South Korea, the Residential Registration Number is so strong that even the internet is working by real name system.”
“We should be concerned with what data companies are allowed to collect, track, keep, use, trade in. That I speak in public does not mean that my speech can be appropriated for commercial use. And surveillance technologies are the price that companies seem extremely willing to pay for using the government to get at our data.”
What sessions did OCF attend?
Since most RightsCon sessions happened after working hours in Taipei, the observations described below were gathered from different OCF members according to the session they attended.
Mainly, the session topics OCF focused on were related to cybersecurity, surveillance and privacy rights. Also, for us at OCF it was not easy to catch all the information when the sessions were not in our native language and also online. So, most of the valuable information we took away from the sessions are practical tools and information links.
1. The tools for the frontline
Since digital interference from China has dramatically increased over the past few years, digital self-protection is of increasing concern in Asia, especially for activists, journalists and protesters. However, development of cybersecurity for civil society in Asia is far behind the rest of the world. That is why RightsCon is so important to us. We learned a lot from other international projects and there are several tools that we learned about from RightsCon sessions that we believe to be valuable for human rights groups in our region.
The kit was developed by the Rapid Response Network (RaReNet) and CiviCERT. The target users of the kit include cybersecurity trainers, NGO workers, civil movement organisers, and journalists. The Kit includes several crisis scenarios. Each scenario includes a) how to diagnose the problems, b) what you will face, and c) what you can do to prevent these problems in the future.
The Digital First Aid Kit is available in at least six languages. They also provide off-line documentation, so users can download the files onto their computer in case of emergency. It is also an open-source project.
Many embassy staff get involved in civil movements, so they will need more cybersecurity awareness and skills to protect themselves and their civil partnerships. This manual was developed in late 2019 and it categorises the information into 12 cards which are easy to learn. The Digital Safety Manual is not only useful for embassy staff, but also for any activist or NGO staff with international operations. Because the manual is authorised under a CC-BY-SA licence, it can be translated it into local languages, which is convenient for improving cybersecurity training materials in other countries.
• During protests
The session "A world in revolution: Lessons and tactics from 2019 protests" presented a great discussion and sharing about how people all over the world share knowledge when participating in protests. In Hong Kong, their tactics for minimising the harm from tear gas, and how they used Airdrop to share protest info: can this knowledge can be used elsewhere? Protesters in Lebanon learned how to handle tear gas from the Hong Kong protesters, and generated more protest manuals to help worldwide protests. Of course, the discussion during RightsCon focused more on types of government digital threats (censorship, social media monitoring, etc.) and digital tactics to circumvent threats.
Because of COVID-19, there is less space for protests because of social distancing measures. However, it is even more important for people fighting for the freedom of expression, because the pandemic has worsened a lot of pre-existing social problems. The speakers and the audiences in the sessions provided many useful links, which could be of help when faced with critical protests. The links included:
2. Keeping a healthy digital life
During our work assisting NGOs with the promotion of cybersecurity, we frequently encounter this problem: NGOs are unaware of the need for cybersecurity. They think cybersecurity is something too technical and far away from their jobs or lives. Thus, we were impressed by the easy-to-understand introduction for non-technical people in this session.
In the beginning, the speaker provided a definition of data. Data is about almost everything in our lives, which includes:
The people we know
The things we do
The places we visit
The timing we browse something
Information to analyse our intentions
Information to predict our behaviour.
By breaking the abstract concept of “data” into several specific applications related to our daily lives, the speaker gave vivid pictures to attendants. This was a useful reference for us at OCF, helping us understand how to arouse NGO members’ interest in cybersecurity.
After clarifying the importance of data protection, the speaker then introduced several tips. The speaker introduced the “Data Detox Kit”. This website provides basic but practical ways to strengthen the protection mechanism in smartphones step by step. There are many language editions on the website, including traditional Chinese!
Additionally, the speaker pointed out there are many apps that would save our data. Thus, these apps can analyse the best methods to affect our decision making. However, we have an alternative: switch to using open source apps or to services that value privacy.
3. Regional meetups – Asia
Asia is a wide region, and the issues vary from area to area. Participants from Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia brought up different topics, including Chinese censorship and internet shutdowns. However, all the participants in the meetups agreed that we should have more online gatherings! The meetups at huge conferences once a year are not enough; we should link with each other in Asia more often. The question then is, how? At least for now, the discussion seemed to end after RightsCon ended, and no notes or network groups were kept.
COVID-19 will not disappear anytime soon, so the development of a better model to keep interacting, networking and collaborating through online events will also be an important task. RightsCon is a great initiative and many lessons can be learned from it.