African LGBTI activists gather to guard against digital security attacks


By Michael Carbone, Access Manager of Tech Policy and Programs, Collin Sullivan, Benetech Human Rights Program Associate, and Annie Wilkinson, Benetech Human Rights Project Manager

We recently returned from Kasarani, Kenya, where we represented Access and Benetech’s Human Rights Program at a regional conference of the Pan Africa chapter of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (Pan Africa ILGA, or PAI). PAI—the largest federation of its kind in Africa—gathers over forty organizations throughout the region that are working to advance human rights and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people. At the conference, we organized a workshop that focused on improving digital security of LGBTI activists and jointly hosted a Digital Security Health Clinic to address questions and problems raised by conference attendees. Unfortunately, there is urgent need for this type of service.

The African continent has seen rising levels of homophobia over the last several months. Newly restrictive, “anti-gay” laws have swept the region, from Nigeria to Uganda to Ethiopia, with many similar efforts following in their footsteps in countries including Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, and Tanzania.

This changing climate has introduced new risks and threats for LGBTI activists across the region. For example, in Uganda, many of the outings of LGBTI individuals in local tabloids after the signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act were sourced from information and pictures posted on Facebook. Some forms of organizing—even online organizing—have become illegal and cause for arrest.

Various efforts to raise digital security awareness among LGBTI human rights defenders and organizations in the African region in recent years have made some headway, but these efforts are often short-term and isolated. The reality is that digital security literacy among LGBTI activists in the region remains quite low. Meanwhile, risks and threats are increasing.

This is what made the recent convening of the regional PAI conference in Kenya timely. The conference provided a platform for discussing issues affecting LGBTI people in Africa and for developing strategies to combat the rising wave of violence and discrimination against them.

Given these recent developments and in response to what we anticipated to be a heightened demand for assistance and information with digital and online security, we decided to organize a workshop presentation at PAI on “Understanding Your Risks”—the first step to improving digital security for LGBTI activists and to empowering them to take appropriate, tailored action. The need for this type of training is especially urgent because there is no blanket protocol for digital security for human rights defenders.

Our workshop also included a module on “Building a Security Culture” to help reframe digital security as a community responsibility that requires an integrated and proactive approach rather than isolated and reactive action, as it is currently often framed and understood. We fortified the workshop with a Digital Security Health Clinic that Access and Benetech collaboratively staffed throughout the conference. At the Clinic, we addressed many questions and problems raised by conference participants, and provided information and referrals for ongoing engagement.

Access connected participants with its Digital Security Helpline for further support, and Benetech demonstrated Martus—its secure, free and open source information management software for human rights activists— and received a request for a formal Martus training. Each organization will be following up on these inquiries.

The spectrum of issues we attended to throughout the Clinic was quite wide. It included encryption of data, text, and chat on mobile phones and personal computers (using tools such as TextSecure, ChatSecure, and TrueCrypt); private/ anonymous internet browsing (using the Tor Browser Bundle); setting up digital security tools from full disk encryption on laptops and smartphones to an anonymity and security-focused operating system (Tails); Facebook security and alternative methods of online organizing; and a host of basic security hygiene questions and discussions of digital vulnerabilities at large.

Clearly there is need for more of this type of service. We see a successful model emerging out of this Digital Security Health Clinic, and are looking forward to replicating it in order to help many more human rights activists in various gathering environments.

Access would like to thank its supporters who made this trip and clinic possible, including the Swedish International Development Agency, Anne Coombs, and Susan Varga.