Posted 29 August, 2022 by Sam Dubberley

Ethical considerations for open source investigations

Today, human rights abuses are often documented as they happen and quickly shared with others around the world: war is streamed live through digital communications technologies. Protesters carry cameras into the streets and film arrests or the misuse of teargas. Perpetrators share videos of violence in messaging groups. All of this is possible through cheap camera sensors in mobile telephones that allow their owners to film and share videos on social media platforms thanks to high-speed internet connections. The collection, analysis and publication of this information – and other digitally mediated data like satellite imagery and social media profiles – by journalists and human rights investigators has become known as open source investigations. This investigative technique has grown in prevalence over the past decade. Collecting videos and photographs of possible human rights abuses or violations of the laws of war is now part of the researcher’s methodological toolbox. Yet all too often, the collection, verification and use of open source information can happen without thinking through all the ethical considerations. 

In March, the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project (University of Essex) published a report, and an accompanying workbook, created with the support of The Engine Room, which outline the ethical considerations that should be taken into account when conducting open source investigations for human rights advocacy or legal accountability.

The report outlines a Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to open source investigations that tries to ensure that human rights organisations do not adversely affect the enjoyment of the human rights they seek to protect. The accompanying Responsible Open Source Investigations Workbook is designed to support the human rights researcher using open source information to make the best possible judgements in the particular context they are working in. 

While we have reason to appreciate the increased visibility of serious international crimes that warrant investigation, these probes come with difficult decisions and raise human rights and ethical challenges. The appeal of open source investigations in allowing investigators to map violations across time and space pull these concerns to the fore. Open source research can, for example, uncover the identity of witnesses, victims or perpetrators and the location of a crime in near real time, potentially placing these people at risk. Open source research relies on the collection and analysis of large data sets that create and expose patterns in data. Human rights investigators and their organisations not only need to be aware of the ethical challenges this form of research presents; they also must consider and integrate their responses to them as they plan, execute and make public their research.

We hope this report and workbook offer material to open source human rights investigators and other organisations applying such an approach to their research, with discussion points that ensure that this rapidly-developing field always remains focused on the victim. 

As Zara Rahman and Gabriela Ivens highlight in the book Digital Witness, “the end mission of defending human rights and revealing rights violations means that investigators should be particularly cautious about their actions and understand the responsibility they carry. In essence: human rights should not be violated during the process of a human rights investigation”.

Photo by Rohit Ranwa via Unsplash.

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