Witnessing atrocity - eyeWitness mobile appWitnessing atrocity - eyeWitness mobile app

Social media is increasingly flooded with material purporting to show human rights abuses, but it is often challenging to prove what is genuine. Now a new mobile app, eyeWitness, aims to help bring perpetrators of atrocities to justice by verifying footage and ensuring it is admissible in court.

Rebecca Lowe

The soldier laughs and casually shoots a naked prisoner, bound and blindfolded, as he lies on a muddy track. Nearby, another soldier approaches a man and executes him at point-blank range. Bodies litter the ground. Panning left, the camera reveals at least seven women lying dead and undressed. Unseen onlookers sneer and make lewd comments, laden with innuendo. The strong suggestion is the women have been raped.

Obtained by UK broadcaster Channel 4 in November 2010, this harrowing footage seems to show Sri Lankan troops executing Tamil prisoners in the closing stages of the 26-year civil war. The film was a longer version of a video received 16 months earlier, sent to the channel by a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists who claimed it was shot on a soldier’s mobile phone.

The reaction from the Sri Lankan government was fierce and unequivocal. The films were fake, they announced, and the product of the
‘anti-Sri Lankan separatist lobby’. A group of UN experts thought otherwise. Following rigorous analysis, the footage ‘appeared accurate’ and constituted ‘credible evidence’, they concluded. Further reporting by Channel 4 corroborated this verdict.

Overall, the process of verification took several months and significant manpower. The films were scoured for detail, every frame inspected, every source exhausted, every potential witness contacted. But even then, the truth could not be guaranteed. Experts are far from infallible, and even the best make mistakes. A degree of doubt will always remain, wielded like a weapon by the alleged perpetrators to beat back their adversaries.

For Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the International Bar Association, one of the international lawyers asked to examine the2010 video, there had to be a better way. What if humans could largely be taken out of the equation? ‘A news agency had a powerful piece of evidence, but without being able to verify its authenticity it would have little relevance for a court proceeding,’ he says. ‘Watching that film was a catalyst for the idea that an app could be created to act as a tool of verification and allow the video to be admissible in a court of law.’

So began a four-year effort to create such technology. The result is eyeWitness to Atrocities, a mobile app with the unique capability to authenticate and securely store footage of gross human rights abuses, while maintaining the anonymity of the user. Minimal extra analysis is necessary – no UN panel, no media probe. In the meantime, those caught in the spotlight, used to swatting away irritatingly observant social media saplings with a cursory cry of ‘fake!’, are advised to be on guard.

‘This is a game changer,’ says US lawyer and academic David Scheffer, who served as the first US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the 1990s. ‘Unverified data is an enormous problem in human rights and atrocity crime cases. Prosecutors have to rely on witness testimony, forensic evidence or, if available, documents. These can be challenged by defence counsel.’

‘The big challenge in this age of social media is that there is too much criminal information and other data – almost a tsunami of data – most of which is useless in a court of law,’ adds US law professor David M Crane, former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, responsible for indicting the
then-President of Liberia, Charles Taylor. ‘A tool like eyeWitness will assist in putting the data in a format to be analysed for possible verification and development into useful evidence.’

Security and integrity

Examples of unreliable and falsified material on social media are manifold. In 2004, the editor of UK tabloid newspaper the Mirror, Piers Morgan, resigned after photos published of British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners transpired to be a hoax. In 2011, western media widely disseminated a film of Syrian soldiers allegedly beating detained protesters, before it emerged the incident had been filmed in Lebanon four years earlier.

It is hoped the eyeWitness app can set honest activists, journalists and citizens apart from potential fraudsters, giving them the credibility and security they deserve as they seek to shine a light on gross human rights violations across the world.

The way it works is simple. The user takes a photo, films a video or records audio through the app, which then embeds a body of metadata: GPS coordinates, date and time, sensory and movement information and a pixel count, as well as nearby Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks. Additional information can be provided afterwards, such as tagging individuals or describing what can be seen in the footage.

This is a game changer. Unverified data is an enormous problem in human rights and atrocity crime cases

David Scheffer
Former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues

Data is encrypted via a unique digital key, which verifies that the image was taken with the eyeWitness app. It can then be sent over the internet or taken via SD card to a secure repository hosted by LexisNexis. There, one copy of the material remains encrypted, while another is decrypted and analysed by legal experts. If anything is received that might constitute evidence of a human rights atrocity – namely, war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity or torture – it is sent to the relevant jurisdiction for further investigation.

For Diane Orentlicher, Professor of International Law at American University and former Deputy for War Crimes Issues in the US Department of State, security is paramount. ‘The security features of this tool are crucial given the risks faced by eyewitnesses to horrific crimes,’ she says, adding: ‘A tool that enables eyewitnesses to record and securely transmit evidence of atrocities… could not only aid future prosecutions, but also enhance efforts to respond to atrocities in real time.’

How eyeWitness copes in the face of potential cyberattacks is yet to be seen. So far, tests have proved encouraging. Tech security firm Dionach tried and failed to hack the encrypted material, while LexisNexis is confident in its cyber defence systems. Where the device itself is concerned, there are a few handy tools to help keep data secure. The app is hidden on the phone and its secure gallery is only accessible via a passcode swipe on an invisible keypad. Both footage and the app itself can also be swiftly deleted should the user find themselves in a dangerous situation.

‘We’ve created a secure cloud environment for the storage and management of data uploaded by eyeWitness users,’ says Ian McDougall, LexisNexis Executive Vice-President and General Counsel. ‘Our facilities and operations teams around the globe have aligned resources to provide 24/7 data security, systems support and operations management, and data replication for disaster recovery purposes.’

A tool that enables eyewitnesses to record and securely transmit evidence of atrocities… could not only aid future prosecutions, but also enhance efforts to respond to atrocities in real time

Diane Orentlicher
Former Deputy for War Crimes Issues
in the US Department of State

Ellis acknowledges that in the modern world of Big Brother surveillance, data can never be 100 per cent secure – and, should such a breach occur, the buck would stop with eyeWitness. However, he believes the cost-benefit analysis weighs firmly in the app’s favour. ‘If you have a government sophisticated enough, there is little doubt they would be able to break through the system, so we would never give a 100 per cent guarantee,’ he says. ‘But human rights advocates who rely on social media to bring attention to atrocities currently have very little protection. This gives them a degree of security that does not exist right now.’

Accountability and advocacy

One chief concern during the development of eyeWitness was protecting the privacy and identity of individuals appearing in the footage. Privacy claims could in theory be filed both under British jurisdiction or where the alleged offence took place, and are likely to be determined on a case by case basis. eyeWitness contends it could not be held liable because it did not capture the footage, but concedes that ultimately only the courts can decide. Certainly, alleged perpetrators attempting to sue are likely to run into difficulties, with many jurisdictions having a criminal justice exception for such suits.

Protection for victims and bystanders is a key priority, stresses eyeWitness Project Director Wendy Betts. ‘eyeWitness has an ethical obligation to do no harm and we take the protection of these individuals very seriously.
We will take all possible measures to ensure our use of the collected footage does not put anyone at risk and respects the privacy of innocent victims and witnesses appearing in the videos.’

The hope, however, is that privacy concerns will pale in comparison to the broader purpose of the app: an end to impunity for the most severe human rights violations. All its tools and features are geared towards this end, designed to ensure the footage is admissible in a court of law. Extensive research was carried out by DLA Piper’s pro bono arm, New Perimeter, into admissibility standards at international, regional and national courts, including the International Criminal Court, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, alongside key national courts with jurisdiction to hear international crimes.

The findings revealed that the most important factors are knowing the source of the footage, ensuring it has not been tampered with and verifying the date and location. While the courts had slight differences in standards, the app has been designed to be applicable across the board. ‘We have ensured it is generic enough to work in these main jurisdictions,’ says Ellis. ‘Some may need additional information, but only very little. It was extremely important we got that right as this was the foundation for the whole app.’

‘We were immediately excited by the app’s potential,’ says New Perimeter Director Lisa Dewey. ‘Through social media, “citizen journalists” are able to raise public awareness of atrocities as they occur. However, increased awareness has not yet led to a corresponding rise in successful investigations and prosecutions of those responsible... The eyeWitness app can change this.’

While eyeWitness is designed to address the gravest atrocities, Ellis stresses that lesser crimes will not be discounted. Should evidence emerge of a potential domestic offence, such as police brutality against a civilian, the appropriate authorities will be contacted where possible. Agreements may also be put in place with certain NGOs to help them in the investigation of alleged human rights abuses.

In addition, the legal experts analysing the data will have the option of sending material to the media as well as prosecutors, Ellis says.
‘We have to be realistic that the legal process takes time. In the meantime, if we feel there is merit to show the footage to the media, we would be prepared to do so. We can advocate for the victims – those tortured, killed and abused – to help bring the perpetrators to justice.’

An eye to the future

$1m of funding has been provided to eyeWitness by the IBA Management Board to support the project. IBA President David W Rivkin says he is ‘very proud’ the IBA has donated such ‘substantial resources’. He adds: ‘eyeWitness will have a lasting impact by bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice and by bringing to light atrocities when they occur in a meaningful and verifiable manner.’

With more than two billion social media users across the world, there are high hopes that eyeWitness will be more than just a flash in the pan. Much hinges on its popularity among activists, journalists and youngsters across the world – yet how many will be prepared to add it to their overflowing social media arsenal of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and co is yet to be seen.

It is important for eyeWitness to be widely publicised as a safe and secure and, most importantly, anonymous means of recording events. If there is confidence in the system, it could become an important tool for holding perpetrators to account

Richard Goldstone
Former Chief Prosecutor at the ICTR and ICTY

Richard Goldstone, former Chief Prosecutor at the ICTR and ICTY, urges people to accept the protections provided by the app, and spread the word to others. ‘It is important for eyeWitness to be widely publicised as a safe and secure and, most importantly, anonymous means of recording events,’ he says. ‘If there is confidence in the system, it could become an important tool for holding perpetrators to account.’

International criminal lawyer Steven Kay QC, of 9 Bedford Row Chambers, and Jonathan Grimes, a partner at Kingsley Napley, echo Goldstone’s appeal. ‘Modern technology that provides film evidence of the perpetration of crimes can help justice by providing the truth,’ say the
Co-Chairs of the IBA War Crimes Committee. ‘We encourage as many human rights groups as possible to circulate it around the globe.’

As the spotlight on international crimes intensifies, technology clearly has a vital role to play. The digital age has unleashed an
ever-expanding maelstrom of data on the world. Now, perhaps, it can help manage, store and secure it – and, ultimately, convert it into a language the law courts understand. ‘We desperately need this kind of evidence in the courtroom,’ says Scheffer. ‘Years from now we will be asking ourselves what it was like when the visual record did not exist.’

Rebecca Lowe is Senior Reporter at the IBA and can be contacted at rebecca.lowe@int-bar.org