The eyeWitness app: Closing the verification gap

blog-500x364In this post from the International Justice Monitor, Wendy Betts discusses the use of citizen-captured information in criminal trials and the role of innovative tools such as the recently launched “eyeWitness to Atrocities” app.

Technological advances have created unprecedented opportunities to collect and report information on human rights abuses, even in the most remote areas of the globe.  This trend will only continue as new satellite systems come online, communication infrastructure is strengthened, and smart phones outnumber feature phones.  Technology has not only improved the fact-finding ability of human rights defenders and journalists, but also has put the power to gather data in the hands of ordinary citizens.

The potential value of this citizen-captured information, or user generated content (UGC), as evidence for holding the perpetrators of atrocities accountable in criminal trials has been widely discussed.  Cogent analyses of the challenges to the use of UGC in this context as well as new tools developed to address these challenges have been presented in this blog.  One oft-discussed challenge to using UGC as evidence is verification. Photos and videos that are captured by standard mobile device camera software and uploaded to social media sites often do not contain vital information such as the date, time, or geographic coordinates.  As a result, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to verify that the footage is original and has not been altered.  Verification is particularly challenging if the individual who captured the footage wishes to remain anonymous.  Additionally, the footage lacks a chain of custody record, identifying who had access to the footage between the time of capture and its use in court.  Therefore, the footage often is of little or no use to legal authorities in investigating or prosecuting the alleged perpetrators.  If the footage does reach a court or other tribunal, it is likely to be rejected or given little weight.

The International Bar Association (IBA) has been working to address the issue of verifying and authenticating UGC.  The IBA recently launched the eyeWitness to Atrocities app, a mobile camera app designed to record video and take photos in a manner that will facilitate authentication of the footage.  The eyeWitness app records and embeds metadata at the time the footage is captured that verifies where and when the footage was taken.  The metadata also allows eyeWitness to confirm that the footage has not been edited or digitally altered and to trace the chain of custody.  The user sends the videos or photos directly from the app to the eyeWitness organization.  Footage sent will be held in an off-line repository, hosted by LexisNexis, an industry leader in securely hosting and maintaining large amounts of data.  LexisNexis has created a secure cloud environment for the storage and management of data uploaded by eyeWitness users.

The eyeWitness legal team will analyze relevant footage and seek out the appropriate legal authorities to investigate the situation further.   In the interim, the secure repository will function as a virtual evidence locker, safeguarding the original, encrypted footage until it is needed for an investigation or trial.  The eyeWitness app complements the resources that have been developed to verify open source footage, such as Citizen Evidence Lab or the Verification Handbook, by collecting information at the point of capture to verify the date and location and that the footage is unaltered, thereby freeing up verification resources to focus on the events portrayed in the footage.

The technology for truth movement is focused on enhancing citizens’ ability to contribute to the justice process.  Indeed, the eyeWitness app is a tool designed to empower citizens on the ground where atrocities are taking place to help bring to justice the perpetrators of these crimes.  While technology can make an important contribution to the justice process, we must bear in mind that technology is a tool, not a solution.  While verifiable information about atrocities is necessary for justice and accountability, it is not sufficient. True justice depends on how this information is used.  Unfortunately, the availability of fora for justice is not as extensive as the demand.

One risk that has not been widely discussed is that of technology raising expectations that cannot be met.   Those who capture and share UGC, often at great personal risk, have already expressed frustration that the information they collect is not used.  The most common explanation to date has been the difficulty in verification.  However, as technology resolves this issue, expectations that the collected information will be used toward justice will rise.  Working to make sure the end users of the technology are also aware of the available options, processes, and limitations surrounding accountability is as important as promoting the use of technology.  The users need an accurate understanding of the potential use of the footage they collect to conduct an effective risk assessment around the collection.  Additionally, users must not perceive lack of immediate action as an indication that their information is simply being ignored.  If so, the user has no incentive to continue collecting information, and the human rights community loses a valuable resource.  Even more important than managing user expectations is the international community’s obligation to honor the risks these citizens are taking to collect information by ensuring there is an appropriate forum, whether national, regional, or international, to air this information and respond to these abuses.

Wendy Betts is the Director of the eyeWitness to Atrocities Project at the International Bar Association.

This blog is a part of International Justice Monitor’s technology for truth series, which focuses on the use of technology for evidence and features views from key proponents in the field.

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