News: News Archives
AAAS Human Rights Program
Protecting Data from Thieves
On April 7, thieves broke into the offices of Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, in a town about 150 miles from Guatemala City; several hours later, the home of a human rights advocate in the capital was also burglarized.
The crimes, which were reported by the Associated Press (AP) the next day, did not surprise Gustavo Meono, director of a group founded by Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu. He told the AP (New York Times, 8 April 2003) that thieves often target the offices and homes of human rights activists. They "come for information and take files and computer hard drives."
What the thieves may not yet know, however, is that AAAS's human rights staff has devised a way of protecting the data that have become so precious to both sides in the effort to demonstrate who did what to whom during the country's civil war from 1960 to 1996. Some of the information collected in the stolen computers represented science-based evidence for prosecuting people accused of killings and torture, rapes and kidnappings, according to Alvaro Caballeros, an archivist at the Association for the Advancement of the Social Sciences in Guatemala (AVANCSO).
"The need for AAAS's help was related to security," Caballeros said. "Our archives are very important to our work collecting information and interviews regarding what happened during the war."
AAAS's data-protection project was carried out with funding from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which recently provided $700,000 to allow the Association's human rights program to continue providing technical assistance and quantitative analyses for large-scale human rights data projects in Africa, Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe.
AAAS computer engineer Miguel Cruz flew to Guatemala in November, carrying a "giant black duffel bag, full of tools and computer networking equipment-cables, routers, hubs...." His job was to set up a system that would allow Guatemala's human rights groups to encrypt the information they generated and to have it automatically copied onto network servers managed from safe locations in other countries.
"We determined that the only really safe place to keep the data was out of the country," Cruz said.
Word of his work spread among the human rights organizations, and volunteers began showing up to help Cruz install the basic infrastructure that was missing in most of the buildings.
"I initially trained about half a dozen people in the basics of network wiring, and they all pitched in, putting their jobs on hold to work late into the evening wielding crimpers, digital cable testers, screwdrivers, and hammers," Cruz recounted. "In an incidental way, of course, the project has provided some good old-fashioned direct development assistance, by providing hands-on learning about cutting-edge technology. It wasn't the goal, but it's a nice side-effect, especially considering that all the assistance actually made the project faster and cheaper."
5 June 2003