When having a strong password can mean life or death
Net Results: UN award for Irish human rights group Front Line Defenders is well-deserved
Shahzad Ahmed of the anti-online censorship organisation Bytes For All: “Front Line Defenders have been on top not only to save many threatened lives, but also safeguarding critical human rights movements in Pakistan.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
How strong is the password on your Twitter or your Facebook account? Strong enough to avoid the threat of being put to death?
You probably laughed. But that’s because you and I have the luxury of laughing. And we can enjoy mocking satire about Ireland’s vote to remove the outdated blasphemy article from the Irish constitution last week.
But elsewhere, blasphemy is punishable by death. So, if someone maliciously hacks your social media accounts, and posts something deemed blasphemous, that might be your death warrant. The need for strong passwords, and an abiding awareness of how to protect yourself online, is no joke in many parts of the world, especially if you are a campaigner for democracy and a human rights defender.
I’ve never forgotten this point, made so eloquently from the stage at the Dublin Web Summit in 2013. I was moderating a conversation with the award-winning human rights defender Shahzad Ahmad , country director of anti-online censorship organisation Bytes For All in Pakistan, in a session devoted to the courageous work done by human rights defenders around the world with the support of the digital protection tools and training provided by the amazing Irish organisation Front Line Defenders (frontlinedefenders.org).
Personal digital security
As the Irish people prepared to cast their votes in the referendum, I thought about Ahmad, who has become an inspiring friend in the years since that first meeting, and about Front Line, and how easy it is to forget that in many parts of the world, personal digital security is not just wise, it’s critical. Without it, many face a greatly increased risk of arrest, torture, imprisonment, even death.
And then, with perfect timing, the United Nations announced on election day that Front Line Defenders was one of the 2018 recipients of its prestigious annual Human Rights Prize.
This is well-deserved international recognition for an outstanding organisation that I have long admired, after I accidentally stumbled upon their digital protection work over a decade ago. I’d read somewhere that a new booklet on personal digital security for human rights activists was to be launched at an event in Canada, and was surprised to discover that the organisation producing the book – Front Line – was Irish.
I’ve followed Front Line Defenders’ work ever since, and had the honour of meeting several of the human rights defenders who have benefited from its digital safety training, and who in turn, help train others throughout the world in these techniques.
As Twitter filled with congratulations and moving testimonials from human rights defenders all over the world, I contacted Ahmad and asked him to explain why this small yet globally important Irish organisation is so valued by him and other human rights activists.
“Front Line Defenders’ intervention helped us pioneer digital security work in Pakistan that resulted in literally thousands of people benefiting from it,” he says.
“Bytes For All first came into contact with Front Line Defenders in November 2010, when we were invited to a digital security training session in Turkey. This was one of the most important training opportunities for us as an organisation, as this training resulted in a major and most successful digital security programme at Bytes For All,” says Ahmad.
“Front Line Defenders later invested in further capacity-building to run this programme in Pakistan for local human rights defenders and journalists. This programme pioneered digital security research, training and capacity-building activities in the country. Unfortunately, this programme had to be closed down due to government pressure in August 2017,” he says, a reminder of the struggle groups like his face day to day.
Front Line Defenders has always been to the forefront in supporting human rights activists or organisations in other ways, too: by supplying emergency grants, financial support to individuals, legal assistance and relocation of human rights defenders to another safe country, he notes.
‘So-called free world’
“Front Line Defenders have been on top not only to save many threatened lives, but also safeguarding critical human rights movements in Pakistan and elsewhere in our region. At a time when threats to human rights movements are increasing many-fold, and support for human rights defenders is shrinking rapidly also in a so-called free world, Front Line Defenders’ work is much more important, critical and needed more than ever.”
Says Ahmad: “Front Line Defenders truly deserve this recognition that they have received from the UN. They’re an extremely committed organisation that is always the first on the frontlines in defending human rights defenders and activists all over the world.”
He expresses gratitude to those who help fund Front Line. “That support is critical for Front Line Defenders to deliver on the ground.”
Front Line Defenders relies on grants from numerous bodies worldwide, including the Government’s Irish Aid programme. But any business or individual can support them too. Why not you?