Bridging Technology and Law to Bring Perpetrators of Atrocities to Justice

06/09/2015 10:47 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

Digital information sharing ushered a sea change in the way we learn about and document atrocities and human rights abuses. The Internet has removed barriers of access and proximity, so events once remote or hidden can now be shared instantly across the globe. "Citizen journalists" typically use social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Google and Twitter to disseminate real-time news and first-hand accounts of sometimes startling events. In Syria, over a million videos of the conflict have been uploaded to YouTube since January 2012, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In conflict zones, egregious human rights violations may be witnessed and broadcast on social media before reaching and being disseminated by mainstream media outlets. Also, with the volume of street reporting far outstripping coverage from shrinking international news bureaus, it's not surprising that mainstream outlets source information from social media. Yet, photographs and videos uploaded to social media sites are rarely attributed and lack vital information such as a date, time, geographic location or origin. Unverified photos and video documentation remain anecdotal.

In 2010, London's Channel 4 News produced an extraordinary investigative documentary into the killing of thousands of civilians by government forces during the final weeks of Sri Lanka's twenty-six-year civil war. At the heart of the investigation was a graphic video revealing acts of torture and execution. The video, which had been sent anonymously to Channel 4, contained live-action footage of a soldier shooting a prisoner as he lay bound and blindfolded amongst a pile of bodies, and footage of a soldier sexually brutalising a woman dead or unconscious on the ground. The anonymous video could not be authenticated and Channel 4 ran a tag line seeking the public's help in providing information about the video or its source.

The Sri Lankan government vehemently asserted that the video had been doctored. With a swift disinformation campaign, the government undermined the entire story. In fact, the ease with which the Sri Lankan government was able to dismiss the video is distressing.

What if that video could have been anonymously authenticated?

A variety of problems surround "citizen journalism" and the use of social media to report serious crimes and atrocities. One is verification and credibility. Another is that while eyewitness accounts on the Internet help to raise awareness of atrocities, they are not useful in the prosecution of individuals who commit international crimes. Because personal videos are not authenticated with a chain of custody record, they are of little or no use to legal authorities investigating or prosecuting crimes. If such videos do reach a court or tribunal, they are likely to be rejected or given little weight.

There exists as a result what may be called an impunity gap. Clear visual evidence of perpetrators committing atrocities is irrelevant in a court of law if it can't be authenticated incontrovertibly.

Enter eyeWitness, a project newly launched by the London-based International Bar Association. eyeWitness to Atrocities is a digital application offering a solution to the evidentiary challenges surrounding mobile video footage. It is a unique and ground-breaking tool in the fight for human rights and accountability for international crimes.

The eyeWitness App was specifically designed to capture GPS coordinates, date and time stamps, sensory and movement data, and the location of nearby objects such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks. This is the kind of metadata required for pictorial evidence to be introduced into an international, regional or domestic war crimes tribunal.

Equally important, the eyeWitness App uses embedded data to securely record a chain of custody, which is key to verifying that footage has been neither edited nor digitally manipulated. Other tools, including hash codes and pixel counts, can be used to verify that footage is unadulterated. For governments seeking to discount and discredit citizen reporting, this function will put up a formidable roadblock.

During installation of the App, a photo is taken and turned into a permanent signature key, which is used to encrypt any videos that are subsequently uploaded. This key verifies that the images were captured using the eyeWitness application.

Once the images are sent directly to the eyeWitness project, users may still upload to social media. Importantly, the eyeWitness App links to a secure repository maintained by LexisNexis, the industry leader in data security. This "back-end vault" functions as a virtual evidence locker. An expert legal team will determine the relevancy of the information and identify the appropriate international, regional or national war crimes courts to receive the transfer of images. Rather than languish ineffectively in the social media cloud, photo and video footage will rest securely with eyeWitness, where a team of lawyers can advocate for the evidentiary information.

The eyeWitness project offers a breakthrough method for ensuring that real-time documentation of atrocities remains secure and verifiable and can be used as evidence in a court of law. eyeWitness aims to curtail impunity and strengthen accountability for international crimes. For human rights advocates and anyone documenting events in today's conflict zones, it is a powerful tool - one we can hope will deter future atrocities.

Dr Mark S. Ellis is Executive Director of the International Bar Association.