Legal Opportunities and Challenges of the Use of Technology in Human Rights Investigations

Remote sensing, DNA sequencing, and data mining have emerged as valuable techniques for investigating and gathering evidence of human rights abuses and war crimes. Collecting evidence sometimes poses legal and moral concerns concerning privacy intrusions and questions concerning the state’s search and seizure authority.  Furthermore, establishing and maintaining the chain of custody of the evidence may be difficult. In the view of some critics, human rights investigations have not been sufficiently rigorous in protecting data.  Moving forward, we can expect that the examination and analysis of evidence by forensic experts will be subject to judicial scrutiny and the court of public opinion.  In fact, the scientific validity of some forensic methods has been called into question already (PCAST, 2016).   Experience and expertise may not be sufficient against courtroom challenge, particularly when the stakes are high.  However, trials will often depend upon this scientific and technical evidence.  The wealth of information garnered between these three techniques together should establish solid cases for the prosecution of crimes.  The exhumation of mass graves is one practice that might benefit from bringing areas of expertise together.  Satellite imagery, for example, locates where the earth has been disturbed, suggesting possible mass graves, while DNA sequencing helps identify the dead once (if) they are exhumed. Information parsed from the Internet (whether videos uploaded to YouTube, photographs shared on social media, or communications posted to Twitter and other platforms) can also provide important contextual information that corroborates information collected by satellites. In this session, we explore how these technologies are currently used in concert (or not) and how such collaborations might be improved to support legal accountability in the future.


  • Victor Weedn, Chair and Professor, Department of Forensic Sciences, George Washington University
  • Alexa Koenig, Executive Director, Human Rights Center and Lecturer-in-Residence at UC Berkeley School of Law
  • Keith Hiatt, VP, Human Rights Program, Benetech 
  • Theresa Harris, Senior Program Associate, AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program
  • Moderator/discussant: Sushma Raman, Executive Director, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy

SUSHMA RAMAN, Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, introduced the symposium’s second day, reflecting on some of the key issues that participants had discussed the previous day.

These included the enormous scale and scope of issues and pace of change; the complexities of weaving together different data-points from different data sources at different points in time to create a coherent narrative about the past and to inform what happens in the future; and the complex array of challenges – ethical, operational, commercial and political in nature – that the proliferation of these new technologies now presents in the field of human rights.