New technologies, including targeted and mass surveillance – helped by the widespread use of mobile phones and facial recognition software – have made it easier for states to monitor and track people.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, an expert group that reports to the UN Human Rights Council, has issued a thematic report examining how new technologies affect enforced disappearance and missing persons. The report states that while these technologies provide new ways to help search for missing persons and to uphold truth and accountability, they can also be misused to facilitate or conceal enforced disappearances. Whilst the focus of the report is on enforced disappearance, as defined under international human rights law, it also provides broader lessons for those working to find people who have gone missing in other circumstances.
New technologies, including targeted and mass surveillance – helped by the widespread use of mobile phones and facial recognition software – have made it easier for states to monitor and track people. The UN report reveals how biometric data and footage obtained from CCTV in public spaces have been used to single out individuals, including people taking part in peaceful protests, who have subsequently been arrested and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared. This represents a significant human rights challenge. Used without human rights due diligence or sound regulatory frameworks, these technologies can help to perpetrate enforced disappearance and hinder the efforts of relatives and human rights defenders in their search for the truth about those who have gone missing.
Social media have become a hugely important tool in the work of human rights defenders, providing new ways of gathering and sharing information on potential rights violations. The use of social media can, however, facilitate enforced disappearance by putting human rights defenders at risk and making them more visible to states who want to silence activists. Social media have also been used to carry out smear campaigns and threaten human rights defenders and the relatives of missing persons.
In addition, there have been a number of cyber attacks against databases containing sensitive information about missing persons and their relatives, such as the January 2022 breach of the ICRC’s databases containing data on missing persons and their relatives. A report from June 2022 revealed that this was a highly sophisticated attack with the aim of extracting data. As stated in Resolution 12 of the 2022 Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, humanitarian organizations and those working to prevent people from going missing must develop secure means for using humanitarian data and safe channels of communication.
While states can exploit new technologies to use enforced disappearance as a tool of repression, these technologies also have huge potential to support human rights defenders and the families of the missing. In some cases, CCTV footage from where the missing person was presumed to have been taken has helped relatives track vehicle number plates. Cross-referencing this information with the call log and mobile data of the missing person has provided clues about their possible whereabouts.
Open-source information, which relies on technology to gather and analyse publicly available data – mainly from social media, but also from satellite imagery or mapping tools – can play a crucial role in the search for missing persons and in establishing and securing evidence to help identify presumed perpetrators. Families of those missing in circumstances other than enforced disappearance, such as those who have gone missing during migration, have turned to apps such as Facebook to try to find out what has happened to their loved ones, which also helps with the sharing of any relevant information globally. While this can help establish the fate and whereabouts of missing persons, there are concerns as to whether such highly sensitive data are adequately and securely stored and protected on social media.
More generally, social media can help prevent people from disappearing in the first place. Migrants at risk of going missing, whether forcibly or for other reasons, have used social media to share video footage and live coordinates of their location. This has proved instrumental in clarifying what has happened to them and where they are. In some cases, it has provided evidence of crimes perpetrated against them.
Searching for missing persons often means processing and analysing very high volumes of different types of data, including images and video footage. Automated and machine-learning methods can look for patterns, contexts and connections to facilitate the search. Angelus, a software program developed in Mexico in collaboration with the country’s National Search Commission, uses a network of algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning. This echoes the work of the ICRC on a programme to reconstruct passenger lists and identify migrants who had gone missing from boats sailing from Africa to the Canary Islands that were either found with few or no survivors, or were never found at all.
The use of machine learning and artificial intelligence represents a new frontier in the search for the missing and disappeared, enabling the processing of large digital data sets – such as those sourced from social media – that cannot be analysed using traditional methods. This allows correlations to be made between elements of different data sets. For example, the identity of a migrant reported missing from West Africa can be matched to an eyewitness account on Facebook of someone drowning in a capsizing boat in the Mediterranean.
Data mining and other big data techniques can also be used to enhance the volume and quality of the information available for analysis, including using smartphone geolocation data and data systematically extracted from social media platforms and other open sources. These data collection methods use apps and software that can capture and preserve evidentiary copies of online content, including audiovisual material, which makes searching more efficient and can potentially give access to evidence that can be used in formal forums. Other programs can assess the integrity of digital images and detect falsified media, but this remains a challenging and resource-intensive task.
The UN’s thematic report notes that smartphone cameras have become a useful tool for documenting human rights violations, including enforced disappearances. The report refers to data collected by presumed perpetrators that document their crimes and are sometimes published on social media. The democratization of data collection through these tools has given the families of missing persons access to information that can drive their search. This has led to cases where relatives and civil society organizations have gathered important data on the circumstances of a disappearance and the identity of the perpetrators.
For the victims of enforced disappearance and other missing persons, new technologies can be a double-edged sword: a tool misused by the state or a non-state actor and, at the same time, one that can help their families and human rights defenders in their search for truth and justice. The challenge now is to find new ways of using these technologies, in particular harnessing the great potential of social media data and other open-source information, in order to address the needs of the missing and their families.
Author: Simon Robins