Perpetrators of crimes can’t be brought to justice without reliable evidence which corroborates their transgressions. Attaining such evidence can be notoriously difficult amidst war and conflict. In this essay, Wendy Betts explains the challenges of securing verifiable evidence of atrocities and describes how the work of the eyeWitness project is seeking to make information-gathering more reliable and secure than ever before. 


It seems we are confronted daily with news of war and man-made humanitarian crises, be it refugees pouring into Bangladesh, the six-year war in Syria, conflict and famine in Yemen, or massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo. News sites and social media are flooded with images of violence occurring around the world. Equally as common as the stories are official denials and questions about the trustworthiness of these images. As a result of this doubt, the tragedy of the original events is compounded by the lost opportunity to use the images to relieve the suffering or bring justice.

Often, the images we see come from ordinary citizens capturing the moment on their smartphones. The ubiquity of smartphones and the proliferation of platforms for sharing information has vastly changed how we hear about events in far corners of the world. Indeed, we now are able to learn of events that in the past would have remained hidden from view.

However, the early promise of citizen reporting has given way to rising scepticism over the authenticity and veracity of the information put forth, either a cause or symptom of a post-truth-fake-news era. While the spread of misinformation is indeed problematic, equally so is disbelief in accurate, authentic images. The Rohingya crisis provides a stark example. The false images being circulated about this crisis can cast doubt on the real ones, complicating our ability to understand and react to events.


Rohingya people fleeing persecution. Footage of their plight has, at times, been contested. Image: European Commission [CC BY-ND 2.0]

The need for verifiable smartphone footage is particularly acute when it comes to holding the perpetrators of serious human rights violations responsible. Official investigations may not take place for months, years, or even decades, by which time memories fade and evidence disappears or degrades. Often, the citizens on the ground are the only witnesses to the events and, therefore, the only source of real-time information. It is imperative that this information is captured and safeguarded in a manner that will preserve it as potential evidence for the future. By missing this opportunity, we lose an important means of holding to account those who commit violence against innocent civilians.

The organisation eyeWitness to Atrocities is a response to these challenges. It began in 2011 as an initiative of the International Bar Association. The catalyst for the project was harrowing footage obtained by the UK broadcaster Channel 4, which alleged to show Sri Lankan troops executing Tamil prisoners. Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the International Bar Association, was one of the international lawyers asked to examine the video.

Despite the fact that the footage showed conduct that appeared to be a war crime, this information could not contribute to legal accountability without knowing more about the provenance of the footage. This trend continued as the amount of smartphone footage coming from war zones, uploaded to social media sites, or leaked to media outlets, steadily increased.


Despite the fact that the footage showed conduct that appeared to be a war crime, this information could not contribute to legal accountability without knowing more about the provenance of the footage.

The purpose of eyeWitness is to amplify the volume of legitimate information, allowing it to rise above the misinformation and scepticism. In June 2015, eyeWitness launched a mobile camera app that captures important metadata about photos and videos to help authenticate and verify the footage. We designed the app specifically to ensure that the footage could be admissible in a court. Our team, based in London, continually monitors changes in technology and the international legal framework around digital evidence, to keep the app up to date.

HOW THE TECHNOLOGY WORKS 

The technology behind the eyeWitness app builds trust in the information captured in three key ways.

First, the app automatically collects GPS coordinates, date and time, and the location of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi networks. This information verifies the date, time, and location the footage was captured. While smartphones alone can also provide this information, it can easily be removed or manipulated. Therefore, the veracity of the information is linked to trust in the photographer. The eyeWitness app records this information automatically, from three independent sources, external to the user. In essence, the app rather than the photographer becomes the trusted witness.

Second, the app stores all footage in a secure gallery within the app, rather than the phone’s native gallery. Only images taken with the app can be stored in the gallery. The app gallery does not allow the user any editing options. Additionally, the app embeds a unique identifying code, known as a hash value, at the moment the photo or video is recorded. This code is akin to a fingerprint, demonstrating to future investigators that the footage has not been edited or altered in any way.


Image: Pixabay [CC0]

Finally, the user sends footage from the app directly to a secure storage facility, maintained by eyeWitness. Only footage captured with, and sent from, the app is accepted, thus ensuring that the stored footage is the original version. This original, encrypted footage is stored offline until it is needed for investigations or trials. This process allows eyeWitness to confirm that no-one has had access to the footage from the time it was recorded, thereby establishing the chain of custody needed by the courts.

The eyeWitness project encompasses more than the app. We have a pro bono legal team that reviews, catalogues, and curates all information we receive. eyeWitness has the capacity to safeguard the information until such time as there is a forum for justice for the crimes recorded.

WHO IS USING THE APP? 

Although the idea of crowd-sourced data collection sparked the project – and indeed the app is available free of charge for anyone to download – we determined early on there are challenges to providing such a tool to the general public as the primary audience. Most people do not have an incentive to have a specialised human rights application on their phone. Additionally, the natural instinct in a fast-moving situation is to use the regular phone camera, which is more familiar to the user. Most people likely would not document regularly enough to form a habit of using a specialised app. Moreover, taking photos or video in a volatile situation can put the photographer and others at risk. We did not want to incentivise an uninformed user to take risks they may not appreciate.

Therefore, we instead establish partnerships with organisations in conflict zones that already engage in human rights documentation. These partnerships allow for an ongoing relationship and support from eyeWitness in using the app. Importantly, this arrangement allows us to strategise and collaborate with the documenting organisations on how to use the information collected in order to maximise the chances of achieving justice.

We currently have partner organisations spanning the globe. We have received more than 2,000 photos and videos from these users. eyeWitness and our partner organisations have provided Information recorded with the app to investigators on national and international levels.

CHALLENGES OF USING THE TECHNOLOGY

While new technologies have great potential in the service of justice and the protection of human rights, implementing those technologies in conflict zones also comes with distinct challenges. It is imperative that individuals, particularly in insecure environments, trust new technology before adopting it. The trustbuilding process can take up to a year or more.

Human rights documenters in the field face significant physical and digital security risks. Potential users have very legitimate concerns about who will have access to the information collected, how secure the information is on their phone and in our server, and how the information will ultimately be used. These concerns are valid and must be addressed before an organisation will adopt new tools.


Human rights documenters in the field face significant physical and digital security risks.

Another factor in adoption is the level of technological capacity and literacy in region. Internet connectivity and the penetration of smartphone technology has made vast strides and continues to improve. However, there are still areas where individuals and organisations simply do not have access to this technology. Additionally, even if equipment is provided, there are challenges to maintaining it. For example, data plans may be prohibitively expensive for transmitting information, or lack of electricity may pose challenges for keeping devices charged. In some areas, because of the rarity of tech use, documenters equipped with smartphones risk drawing unwanted, and potentially dangerous, attention to themselves.

As one would imagine, tech literacy will be low among individuals unaccustomed to using tech devices. However, even among individuals who regularly use smartphones or other technology, there is a broad spectrum in level of understanding of the features, functions, and capabilities of the equipment. We have found individuals may be less inclined to use a beneficial tool because they do not understand how it works. Equally, individuals may be willing to use an unsafe tool because they do not understand the security implications. For these reasons, eyeWitness tends to partner with organisations already documenting violations using photos and videos. We engage in iterative discussions to build the trust needed, and provide ongoing support once the partnership is formed.

ETHICAL AND LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS

Informed consent is another issue of concern when using smartphones for documentation. Best practice in the field of human rights reporting and investigation dictates that victims and witnesses give informed consent, confirming they fully understand the anticipated use of the information they provide. When investigators collect information first-hand from victims and witnesses, the proposed use of the information can be discussed and agreed upon up front.

However, smartphones have made it easy to capture photos and videos, anytime, anywhere, and by anyone, often without the knowledge of individuals who may appear in the footage. This digital information is also easily shared and disseminated, which creates gaps between victims, witnesses, investigators, and the bodies eventually acting on the information collected. The situation is compounded in the context of justice for serious violations as the ultimate forum for accountability may not yet exist when the information is collected. Therefore, it is not possible to inform individuals exactly how their information will be used.

Additionally, as technology allows for anonymous collection, posting, and sharing of footage, investigators who ultimately obtain the footage may not have any information on the source of the information to be able to seek their consent. To ameliorate this issue, eyeWitness policy is to inform app users before we share their information with third parties. However, questions remain about what constitutes ‘informed consent’ in this context, when is consent necessary, and how practically to obtain it. These questions require additional and ongoing attention, particularly given the rapid pace of technology developments, to ensure the rights and security of victims and witnesses are safeguarded.

Watching the news day after day, it may seem that justice is rare and elusive. Indeed, there must be political will for investigations, prosecutions, reparations, or any other form of justice. As we have seen with the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Cambodia, it can take decades to address serious crimes. However, justice can never be achieved without reliable information about the violations committed. Information gathered now is a prerequisite to justice in the future. By collecting, compiling, and safeguarding verifiable and trustworthy photos and videos, while respecting the rights of victims and witnesses, we can ensure that when the opportunity for justice arises, the evidence required for justice will be there.


Wendy Betts is the Director of eyeWitness, a project of the International Bar Association focused on the collection of verifiable video of human rights violations for use in investigations and trials.  She previously served as a Senior Program Manager in the International Programs Division of the National Center for State Courts and as the Director of the American Bar Association War Crimes Documentation Project. Ms. Betts has a M.A. in International Relations/International Economics from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a J.D. from the University of San Francisco School of Law.

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Feature image: eyewitnessproject.org