09/07/2011 01:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2011

Human Rights Video Now: Opportunities and Challenges

This post was written by Sam Gregory, Program Director of WITNESS

The visual symbols from the momentous change taking place across the Middle East and North Africa etched in our collective consciousness may very well be images of protestors who waved cell phones, recording events as they unfolded, thousands of tiny screens lit up at gatherings in public squares, the man who held up a sign in Tahrir Square in Cairo which read "Thank you, Facebook." Perhaps you watched the brave reporting of Mohammed Nabbous, a citizen journalist in the Libyan city of Benghazi who was killed while broadcasting the aftermath of destruction by Libyan forces in his city.

The ability to capture events and share them, in some cases as they happen, via online social networking has brought the digital age home like no other activity. People are speaking truth to power in ever more public and immediate ways, enabled by their mobile phones, small digital cameras and other recording devices that are often equipped with an Internet connection.

My organization, WITNESS (online at, which is dedicated to the use of video to document human rights abuses and the use of that video to catalyze change, and others are excited about this development. Thousands of new human rights witnesses are taking a stand every day.

But we are also concerned. We are concerned for the safety of those activists filming and distributing video, and people they film -- who may be hunted by repressive governments. We want to support these brave witnesses who are speaking up for their rights. In order to do this, activists need help to ensure their video makes the greatest impact, including tools and skills that can help confirm that their footage is real and authentic, and make it stand out.

We are trying to keep up with the myriad ways that video is being used for change (we even have a hashtag on Twitter that catalogs examples: #video4change) but we realized we needed to do more. That's why we've released a report this week, called Cameras Everywhere that presents a road map to emerging trends in policy and practice at the intersection of human rights, technology, social media, and business.

Beyond observing these trends, our report also makes specific recommendations on how important players in the new human rights landscape can take specific, manageable steps to strengthen the practical and policy environments for human rights video, and other information and communication technologies used for human rights. The events of the "Arab Spring" showed us that technology providers are increasingly intermediaries for human rights activism. They should take a more proactive role in ensuring their tools are secure, and integrating human rights concerns into their content and user policies.

We hope that the issues we outline in the report such as: visual privacy and anonymity; information overload; the danger posed by the ease of mobile phones; the risks on social networks and video sharing sites that automated facial recognition software poses; and how we authenticate and verify the increasing amount of visual material being produced are concerns and ideas you find equally as important as we do.

Nearly 20 years ago, our co-founder Peter Gabriel wondered what change would be possible if people who had survived human rights abuses had access to a video camera. Now that dream is being realized in part due to the proliferation of video-enabled technology.

Join us in making this a public discussion. We'll be at the Open Video Conference in New York this weekend. We'll also be discussing these topics online via our website (, blog and social media. Let's make this moment, as Peter refers to it, an "age of transformative technology."