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We tried to save 150 people in Aleppo from 5,000 miles away

- January 9, 2017
A girl plays amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Rai town in northern Aleppo province. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

With Russian and Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s regime rapidly closing in, the situation for those trapped in eastern Aleppo in the first week of December was growing grimmer by the hour. It was especially dire for the White Helmets, a Syrian first-responders group that had won international acclaim for its humanitarian work, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Assad regime held a different view, describing the group as rebels and terrorists.

On Dec. 8 at 3:30 p.m. in Boston, one of the first messages from the White Helmets to reach researchers at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative said that “three gas bombs have been dropped in the area within the last two hours and they [the White Helmets] feel they have less than 48 hours to evacuate before they are seized.” The Harvard group was asked to help find an escape route out of Aleppo for the White Helmets and their families, about 150 people in all.

How could Harvard scholars sitting in Cambridge, Mass., help 150 people find their way out of a war zone? We hoped it could be done with commercial remote-sensing satellites.

As recently as 1999, surveillance satellite images were classified — available to a handful of Russian and U.S. officials. Today, a growing number of commercial satellite companies offer sub-one-meter resolution imagery, with one — U.S.-based DigitalGlobe — offering 30-cm (less than 12 inches) resolution images. A satellite orbiting 380 miles above the Earth and traveling 17,000 mph can take pictures of objects the size of a laptop computer.

Since 2006, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have regularly used satellite images to spot mass graves, map the destruction of towns and cities, and track refugees. Geospatial data have empowered human rights groups in ways that would have been unimaginable less than two decades ago.

Yet the use of satellites by human rights groups also creates ethical challenges.

Perhaps chief among them is the potential for mission creep. For much of the 20th century, human rights groups sought to verify abuses by interviewing witnesses, victims and local officials, and by reviewing documentary evidence. This is still often the case. But now, with satellite data and the daily tsunami of words and images on social media, human rights organizations also focus on events in near-real time. Consequently, they walk a fine line between serving a traditional role as documenters of past events on the one hand and as participants in unfolding events on the other. The distinction is important.

An ad hoc coalition focuses on evacuating people 5,000 miles away

Last month, this lesson became especially clear to us at Harvard as we found ourselves involved in efforts to evacuate 150 people from eastern Aleppo.

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On Dec. 8, a leading Syrian physician living in exile near Boston contacted the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to ask for help with a possible evacuation of the White Helmets and their families.

HHI then asked Steven Livingston at the Carr Center whether it was possible to obtain satellite imagery that could be used to identify possible escape routes. Immediately, he contacted colleagues at two satellite companies, BlackSky and DigitalGlobe, as well as colleagues at two prominent human rights groups. He also reached out to Jonathan Drake, an imagery analyst at AAAS. Syria Tracker, a group that monitors social media and local contacts, also was contacted. Jim Beckley at BlackSky, in turn, reached out to colleagues at DigitalGlobe, Terra Bella — a satellite company owned by Google — UrtheCast and Airbus.

Within two hours of the request to the Harvard researchers, BlackSky and DigitalGlobe were hunting for recently archived imagery that might lead the group to safety. Just before midnight, Drake at AAAS started reviewing imagery taken earlier that morning for possible escape routes.

Meanwhile, all the satellite-imagery providers tasked their most powerful satellites with acquiring new images of locations in eastern Aleppo where the group and families were hiding. Former government analyst Steve Wood at IMINT Consulting joined AAAS’s Drake in searching for possible escape routes.

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In a matter of hours, a broad network of companies, NGOs and scholars had come together to help people trapped in a bombed-out city 5,000 miles away.

What happened and what did we learn?

First, the image analysis indicated that the White Helmets and all of eastern Aleppo were surrounded. Information gathered by Syria Tracker confirmed what new DigitalGlobe satellite imagery showed. Increasingly desperate messages were now coming directly to us at Harvard. This was not what we wanted to hear.

LIVINGSTON satellite pic

Yet despite this potentially tragic outcome, the fact remains: A network of nonstate actors mobilized in hours and produced actionable intelligence.

Second, the network came together so rapidly in no small part because of our personal ties. Recent political science research suggests that digital technology helps networks form rapidly around shared goals. Yet our ad hoc effort also upheld more traditional social movement theory, which emphasizes the role of strong personal ties among participants. The network assembled around Aleppo benefited from years of interaction among experts in the satellite community, human rights groups and the scientific community based at AAAS, BlackSky and DigitalGlobe.

Finally, there were serious ethical challenges. Telling vulnerable people to move in any direction, or to stay in place, made us responsible for the outcome.

Even the most favorable result — finding an escape route and successfully leading all 150 people to safety — carried risks. As we looked for escape routes, diplomats were negotiating terms for safe passage for all civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo. We could not guarantee that our possible “success” would not undermine those negotiations.

Technological effects are sometimes contingent on stubborn facts. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other experienced organizations are keenly aware of this and take precautions with the use of information technology. The ad hoc team at Harvard and AAAS took a breath, thought about what we knew and, more important, what we didn’t know.

We concluded that we could not involve ourselves in life-or-death decisions, even though technology presented us with an opportunity. Perhaps with even more commercially provided information, we at Harvard and AAAS might have come to embrace the role technology had afforded us.

But would it have been correct for us to do so, with any degree of certainty? Again, what if our success affected the negotiations for a general evacuation of eastern Aleppo — which did occur, haltingly, about a week later?

Scholars, policymakers and moral philosophers must grapple with the differences between what technology makes feasible and what is ethically and politically prudent.

Steven Livingston is a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University and a professor at George Washington University.

Jonathan Drake is a senior program associate with the Geospatial Technologies Project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.