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Bringing war criminals to justice

Billions of people now have the power to be citizen journalists by capturing footage on their smartphones, and every minute around 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. Among these are thousands of purported eyewitness accounts of human rights violations and atrocities, with the potential to expose criminals who would otherwise escape justice. The problem is determining what’s real.

Late in 2014, footage emerged on the YouTube site of the activist Shaam News Network channel, apparently showing a heroic Syrian boy braving sniper fire to rescue a terrified young girl. At the time, an estimated 11,000 children had died in war-torn Syria. Experts told The Telegraph newspaper that they have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the footage. It turned out to be fake, produced in Malta by a Norwegian film director in order to generate a discussion about children in conflict zones.

The problem of verifying footage is not just a source of potential embarrassment for news organisations. It also undermines the potential for these videos to be used to prosecute the perpetrators caught on camera. Recorded images typically do not meet the standard required to be used as evidence in a court of law. They are vulnerable to counterclaims that they are fake or have been tampered with.

To tackle this problem, The International Bar Association (IBA) teamed up with LexisNexis Legal & Professional on the eyeWitness to Atrocities project. On 8 June 2015, the eyeWitness smartphone app was launched, enabling footage to be captured and stored in a way which ensures it is admissible in court. “The issue we’re trying to address is a primarily a verification issue”, explains Wendy Betts, director of the eyeWitness project at the IBA, “so much ends up on social media without the metadata to authenticate footage, so very little can be done from there”.

The catalyst for the eyeWitness project actually occurred in 2009, when social media was just taking off. Channel 4 broadcast a video, purportedly taken on a mobile phone by a Sri Lankan soldier, as part of its “Killing Fields” documentary. The footage showed what appeared to be the Sri Lankan army executing captured Tamil fighters during the closing phase of a civil war which had killed an estimated 100,000 people. The Sri Lankan government dismissed the video as a fake, calling it “a sinister attempt to bring disrepute to the government”. Although the UN concluded, based on extensive forensic analysis, that the video was authentic, the Sri Lanka government continues to dispute it. It has not, therefore, been possible to pursue prosecutions. Channel 4 News Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Miller passed the footage to the IBA, which set out to find a solution that would help prevent such a situation from happening again.

“Until now, it has been extremely difficult to verify the authenticity of these images and to protect the safety of those brave enough to record them” explains IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis, who oversaw development of the app. To ensure that footage would meet the high standards of courts, a team of lawyers from the New Perimeter program at DLA Piper conducted extensive research, including by consulting the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), former prosecutors and other legal experts.

The eyeWitness team plans to get the app into the hands of human rights campaigners, investigators and journalists in war zones, but it is available to any member of the public from the Google Play store. Users can upload images and video through the app on any Android-enabled smartphone. The app automatically collects and embeds into the file information including include GPS coordinates, date and time, sensory and movement data, and surrounding objects such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks.

“The user presses the icon to activate the camera” explains Wendy Betts of the IBA. “At this point the user can switch to the secure mode to ensure that the footage is stored in an encrypted secret gallery on the phone and that the metadata is recorded and embedded”. She explains that the app has in-built security features to protect users. If stopped by a policeman at a checkpoint, “the user can escape from the secure gallery, at which point the camera looks and functions like a regular camera – there is no evidence of the images that have been taken”. There is also a panic button which erases all information from the app.

The eyeWitness app creates a “chain of custody record” using embedded data that verifies the footage has not been edited or digitally manipulated. A permanent signing key, which is created by an initial photo taken during installation of the app, is used to encrypt the videos that will be sent. This signing key verifies that the video images were taken using the eyeWitness app device. Additional tools, including hash codes of pixel counts, are used to determine the footage has not been altered.

The files are then uploaded to a secure repository hosted by LexisNexis Legal & Professional, a division of RELX Group. Only footage captured with the app can be stored in the repository, and only the eyeWitness expert legal team can access the footage submitted. In essence, the repository functions as a virtual evidence locker, safeguarded in LexisNexis’ industry-leading secure environment.

The IBA’s team of analysts will analyse the captured footage and seek out the appropriate authorities to carry out further investigations. “As an advocate for the voiceless, the International Bar Association is dedicated to empowering activists on the ground who are witnessing these atrocities with the ability to bring criminals to justice”, says Mark Ellis.

For LexisNexis Legal & Professional, the eyeWitness project was a natural application of its technology to further a cause which is at the heart of the company. “Putting information and technology in the hands of citizens worldwide has a powerful role to play in advancing the rule of law” says Ian McDougall, EVP & General Counsel of LexisNexis Legal & Professional. “LexisNexis Legal & Professional’s world class data hosting capabilities will provide the eyeWitness programme with the same technology that we use to safeguard sensitive and confidential material for our clients every day. It’s all part of our company’s broader commitment to advancing the rule of law around the world, as we believe every business has a role to play in building a safer, more just global society”.

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