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From fax machines to the decentralized web, WITNESS has been protecting and defending human rights through technology for the past 30 years. Learn more about how blockchain fits into their mission from Jacobo Castellanos who is working on WITNESS's Technology Threats and Opportunities program.

Can you tell me more about how WITNESS navigates the intersection of technology, specifically blockchain technology, and human rights

Jacobo Castellanos: For context, WITNESS is a human rights organization that started 30 years ago. Not too long ago a colleague was mentioning, as a joke, that in the first years WITNESS started we were discussing the impact of fax machines and the work that we do in human rights. Everything changes really fast. Now we are talking about a lot of different things including blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), generative AI, synthetic media, and deep fakes, that’s a big area for us. And so how do we navigate it? At a first level, we work very closely with communities on the ground. We try to hear, understand what’s happening in these spaces, and recognize that a lot of the technological developments, although they come with different tools and different processes, perhaps a lot of the problems that arise are not always new. So there's always a lot to learn from things that have been happening for a long while. For example, in terms of disinformation, WITNESS has been working on shallow fakes, which are small changes to images and videos, for a while now and now we're talking about the impact of artificial intelligence. What we've learned in the past is also helping us move forward when we talk about artificial intelligence. In the space of blockchain or more generally, decentralization, we are exploring these spaces and the impact they have for human rights. Most notably, at least in the program that I am part of, we talk about the potential of blockchain technologies and decentralization more generally for authenticating content. So how do we make sure that the image that we're seeing, for example, is real, that it hasn't been manipulated. So in this space, we're continuing to explore all the potential that blockchain can offer.

What are you looking forward to with the work that you're doing at WITNESS, and specifically the program that you're working on?

Jacobo: The program that I'm part of is called Technology Threats and Opportunities so we're looking at what's happening now, and will be happening in the coming years. So what I'm looking forward to, it's kind of a double edged sword here, because what I'm looking forward to also comes with a lot of risks. I guess the question is how do we in the space that we’re working on, how do we move forward with all of these technological advancements into a place that is mindful of human rights considerations that pay attention to privacy and a whole bunch of specific issues and really leverage the potential of these technologies while not falling into a lot of the harms that they can cause. Perhaps to make it a little bit more specific, I am really looking forward to how generative AI and synthetic media can be used to leverage human rights action, how it could be used creatively to create narratives that help defend human rights, to create narratives that fight against climate change, and that help protect territories, and that help serve as a countermeasure against state violence, for example. We've seen more and more that there is a lot of potential for these technologies to do this and how do we create a system that also promotes justice. To connect it back to decentralization and blockchain technologies, how do we create them in a way that they can be resilient, that is a big issue, while also having these indicators of trust and authenticity at a time where there's a crisis of trust, and we're not sure we can believe in or not.

WITNESS works with communities spanning many different countries around the world in different regions. I'd love to know what you all are seeing around the world when it comes to policy. How have different countries and regions responded to the use of technology for human rights, from more of a policy or governance perspective?

Jacobo: One of the issues to point out is that, as with other policy areas, the big question is how do we make sure that the right people are involved in drafting these policies, and that is always an obstacle. Then, when it comes to technology, and especially these emerging technologies, it gets more complicated when we realize that a lot of the innovation, a lot of the power, is centered in a few countries, and not just a few countries, even within those countries, within a certain group of people. Two big areas that we're concerned about is, first of all, recognizing the fact that a lot of the policies that are happening in the United States or in Europe, they can have an impact in other countries. How do we make sure that the input or the experience that people have in different parts of the world, people with different experiences, are reflected in these spaces. It's a challenge, because it's not necessarily their jurisdiction, so to speak. Also, when you think about local policies that are cropping up again, it's the same, how do you get the right people, the right experience, or the right range of experiences involved in the process of drafting these policies. So what we are seeing, this applies for what's happening with artificial intelligence, but also with what's happening within the space of blockchain, there is a lag between, not just policies and also the involvement of a range of people but in innovation. Innovation is moving very rapidly and we're not necessarily getting the right input from the range of people that we want. How do we get more people involved, how do we get the technical know-how but also the experience as part of these processes to develop legislation in different countries.

What is your favorite film and why?

Jacobo: When I think of my favorite movie, it's not so much the movie that I think is the best one in terms of creative or artistic value but just whichever one makes me feel best. I think every time I watch Lord of the Rings I feel at home, I feel comfy which brings back good memories. Lord of the Rings, all three of them are my favorite movies. I could watch them, the long versions, over and over again.

On a bit more of a philosophical level, and this is just your opinion, do you think the evolution of technology is benefiting or harming human rights?

Jacobo: The very general response that I would give can be a little bit pessimistic, in the sense that with all the power that technology brings I always get the sense that it is those that already have power or those that are well placed can leverage them the most, and that tends to create more inequalities. I think we see examples of that throughout history, when the Internet came up I think there's a lot of people that said, “Hey, this is really a decentralized way of communicating and keeping ourselves informed,” that then eventually it became the bedrock over which these huge conglomerates became even more powerful. So there's that pessimistic side. As I do work in technology and human rights, there's always this hope that technology can defend human rights, but it also just brings a lot of good to this world. The really interesting thing about this and the hopeful thing about this is that there are pathways to get to that for every technology that we see in the world. I think we can all imagine so many ways, and not just imagine, we can all create so many ways for these technologies to be beneficial for a lot of people. There's a lot of great examples of that, including what you do with blockchain. There's so many right ways to use it, and so many good ways and potential ways to use this. It's just a question of how to combine it with regulation and oversight and find ways to reduce the harms, but also potentiates the beneficial sides. So it's a little bit of an ambivalent response. Sometimes I think it takes us to the harmful side, but I'm always clinging to a little bit of hope that we can make the best of these technologies.

But why, blockchain?

Jacobo: A lot of things to say about this. So first of all, why, blockchain? Well, we can think about the alternatives for starters. There's some alternatives that we could stand behind but there's also a recognition that a lot of material is lost. For example, in these more traditional spaces where information is held, a lot of the information that we see and that we upload goes through traditional platforms, and this trust may be misplaced many times, especially when regulation changes, when there's a clashing regulation as well, but also commercial interests in place. The fact that footage that is real is undermined or dismissed again. So there's a lot of problems with the system that we have in hand now and blockchain offers some solutions. I think there's still a lot of questions as to the potential or the issues that may arise with blockchain. But we're continuing to explore that. One of the great things about blockchains is that it offers some solutions to the problems that we face. Now, for example, you know one that might often come up, is that there's not a single point of failure. So the information that you gather you can have in different places as opposed to one place where something happens, you move that. One of the other really interesting things about blockchain and decentralization more generally is that it offers new forms of governance that could also be decentralized and could also reflect the fact that we live in a global world. We may need governance systems that are not necessarily tied to a physical place, more global. The potential blockchain for provenance and authenticity is something that we work on a lot. How could we use blockchain to verify that the contents that we're seeing under the history of the content that we're seeing is true, or something that we can trust.  So those are the few of the reasons why we're looking at and exploring blockchain.

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