New Mobile App Helps Document, Verify Atrocities

Posted June 19th, 2015 at 1:32 pm (UTC-5)
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Recently, someone posted an online video depicting human rights abuses and claimed it was from the Central African Republic, long a witness to the atrocities of war. The footage was actually from Nigeria.

In another instance, images that were posted on social media in relation to last year’s Gaza war in fact dated back to 2012.

“It doesn’t matter what conflict you’re looking at. You always find old footage,” said Amnesty International’s Christoph Koettl, Founder and Editor of Amnesty’s Citizen Evidence Lab.

In many cases, “the images or the videos are just recycled, meaning they are old or they come from a completely different country,” he told TECHtonics.

Koettl spends most of his time looking at videos and pictures that were shared on social media to verify their credibility for potential use as court evidence in war crimes cases – a meticulous and labor-intensive process that takes hours and sometimes days.

Now, a new Android app from the International Bar Association (IBA), a non-profit legal services group, could help make the verification process easier for human rights researchers.

A screenshot shows a selection of images on the eyeWitness app for Android mobile devices, courtesy the eyeWitness Project.

A screenshot shows a selection of images on the eyeWitness app for Android mobile devices, courtesy the eyeWitness Project.

The app – eyeWitness to Atrocities – was designed “to help record footage of violations of international criminal law that … could be authenticated and used in investigations and trial,” said eyeWitness Project Director Wendy Betts in an interview.

“What we’re trying to do is provide the individuals who are courageous enough to capture this footage with the tools and help increase the impact of the images that they take and submit,” she said.

The app records and embeds the metadata needed to authenticate the footage and collects GPS coordinates, date and time information from satellites to verify when and where a video or picture was taken.

Koettl said the metadata the app collects makes its chain of custody very clear, allowing a lawyer or a court to determine very clearly who had access to the footage and whether it was tampered with.

“And that is different from any sort of footage that is shared on social media or is sent from one person to the other,” he said. “So it becomes a little bit easier in court proceedings.”

Footage and images submitted to the eyeWitness organization undergo a pixel count that is then run through an algorithm. The algorithm in turn assigns each item a unique identifying code.

“If the image were to be edited or altered in any way, it would change that identifying code so that we could identify that a change had been made,” said Betts.

When footage appears to show criminal conduct or conduct relevant to an atrocity, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or torture, then it is deferred to an appropriate legal authority or other accountability body for further investigation.

Betts said she would like to see the app in the hands of citizens who are often the first and sometimes the only witnesses to these types of violations.

“We really are focused on empowering them to be able to help bring to justice individuals who commit these types of atrocity crimes,” she said.

At the same time, she said safety is a high priority, given that citizens or journalists in conflict zones often run afoul of the perpetrators of war crimes or human rights abuses and sometimes pay with their lives.

The app comes with security features to hide its existence should the phone fall into the wrong hands. Captured pictures and videos are also securely stored within the app, with passcode access known only to the user. Once transmitted, the encrypted material is stored on an offline server.

Nevertheless, Betts urged users “to be very aware of the risks that they might be taking before they decide to film and if necessary to even forgo filming.”

Koettl echoed the warning, saying the eyeWitness app is not for everyone. He cautioned users to do a proper risk assessment before filming.

“Is it really safe in that specific moment maybe to pull out my camera – doesn’t matter if it’s a cell phone or any other sort of camera – and film in this moment?” he asked. “So that is something that whoever does the filming has to take into account.”

Once the risk factors are assessed, Koettl said eyeWitness to Atrocities would be “most impactful” if citizen journalists or activists who are already filming or taking pictures started using it because it also allows them to use their material as potential evidence in future court proceedings.

Those who already post material about atrocities and human rights abuses should double-check their sources, add proper context, date, time, location and other information that can aid with verification, and ensure that they do not put any pictured individuals at risk.

Used ethically, new digital technologies can “empower regular people to record what they’re seeing and share content,” said Koettl. ‘And sometimes it becomes evidence.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

One response to “New Mobile App Helps Document, Verify Atrocities”

  1. […] such as the panic button incorporated into the eyeWitness app are both innovative and laudable, significant efforts will be required to raise awareness of the risks civilian witnesses might be taking when using such […]

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