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Training the digital rights defenders the world needs now

It has been both a pleasure and a challenge for us at the Security Lab to translate practical experience and learning on digital forensics into a succinct curriculum. As the spyware crisis becomes more acute, training human rights defenders to do digital forensics is critically important for the human rights movement worldwide. As part of our response to this crisis, we’ve decided to embark on the Digital Forensics Fellowship, Round 2! 

This past year in Amnesty International’s Security Lab we had the unique opportunity to train and learn alongside a dedicated group of activists motivated to learn more about digital forensics. Digital forensics is the term we use to describe technical research employed by the Security Lab to identify and evaluate traces of spyware on devices. The Digital Forensics Fellowship (DFF) was our first attempt at formalising the practices and methodologies from the past several years of doing this work to create a structured curriculum. This work is highly technical and high-stakes, and is not something that can be mastered in a week or a month; it’s a constantly evolving puzzle of diverse components that can shift rapidly, revealing new leads and questions as you go along.  

Our open recruitment process generated genuine interest from all corners of the world, with over 600 people applying for five spots in the programme. Given our real desire to recruit a diverse Fellowship cohort, we created a call for applications that we hoped would encourage human rights defenders, journalists, and technologists to apply, regardless of formal education and experience. We were thrilled to read through the eclectic mix of applications which demonstrated how many different people were interested in this programme and learning about this work.  

The group of five Fellows who completed the DFF showed exceptional commitment not only to digital forensics work, but also to the process. Throughout a year of training and learning, we were able to refine the curriculum and determine the most efficient ways to transmit this complex knowledge. The Fellows’ questions and feedback have helped us reflect on and improve our approach as we seek to further disseminate this critical information.  

We learned a lot about how to present the knowledge the team has gained over the years in a straightforward way that makes sense to people who haven’t followed the process since the start. It became clear after the first couple of months that teaching the practices and methodologies that have come together over the years required strategic thought and reflection. Asking questions such as: how did we get here? or, what was the chain of events that led us to this moment? helped us sift through the boundless information that could have been added to the curriculum.  

Despite this type of research lending itself to independent, online work, the in-person meetings that we had were crucial to the programme’s success. Ensuring that the Fellowship cohort was at ease working with our team and each other on these truly difficult topics was paramount. A large part of this foundational team-building work happened in the early months, as we sought to develop a feminist, non-hierarchical culture to foster an open learning environment.   

All said and done, this year affirmed for the team that longer-term capacity building work with activists is a necessary component of our approach to doing digital forensics. Doing the research is essential, yes, but ensuring that others can do it independently all across the world might be equally as important.  Without this global outreach and capacity building, how can we know the true scope of the spread of spyware? Branching out to empower activists worldwide to do the research themselves will help us answer this query.  

The natural question that follows is, where do we go from here? How do we support this field to grow and adapt to the rapidly changing mercenary spyware landscape? In addition to expanding our team and to creating more useable tools for our colleagues and partners, we’ve decided to embark on the next round of the DFF, working with other civil society organisations to further strengthen the pool of researchers capable of conducting this work.  

We are motivated to continue supporting the development and diversification of this pool of researchers and will commit further energy this year to actively seeking to include women, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, and other candidates who have been historically under-represented in the technology field in the Fellowship. To do so, we’ll be working with our partner organisations to identify and recruit a new cohort for the second edition of the DFF. Before meaningful global action is taken to ban abusive spyware use, the digital forensics research and capacity building work is essential, and we need all hands on deck! 

You’ll find more information about the second edition of the Fellowship on Amnesty’ Career site at the following link: