The HRAS Interview: Wendy Betts eyeWitness Project Director

Wendy BettsEmpowering Eye Witnesses

It is now possible for people who witness crimes and human rights abuse at sea to use the eyeWitness to Atrocities app to capture evidence.

Developed by the International Bar Association, the app, through its unique capabilities, enables Android smartphones and tablets to be used to document crimes – such as murder, armed robbery, human trafficking, piracy and drug smuggling – in a way that is admissible as evidence in a court of law.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to eyeWitness Project Director, Wendy Betts, about the system and the protection of those who use it.

HRAS: Wendy, you have 20 years’ experience in international development, law reform and transitional justice. You have managed projects in Eastern Europe, Sierra Leone, Indonesia and Haiti. What motivated you to now take the lead on eyeWitness?

I am motivated by the opportunities I have had to meet and speak with many individuals living and working under incredibly challenging and, often, life threatening, conditions.
Their dedication and sacrifice in reporting on the violations they are experiencing inspire me, and all of us at eyeWitness, to support their efforts by amplifying their voices.

HRAS: What are the challenges to using citizen captured footage as legal evidence?

Photos and videos that are captured by mobile devices and uploaded to social media sites 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, meaning it is unclear who had access to the footage between the time of capture and its use in court. Therefore, it often is of little or no use to legal authorities in investigating or prosecuting the perpetrators. If the footage does reach a court or other tribunal, it is likely to be rejected or given little weight.

A prominent example of footage not being easily verified took place in 2009 when the UK’s Channel 4 News broadcast a video of what appeared to show the Sri Lankan army executing captured Tamil fighters during the Sri Lankan civil war. The Sri Lanka government denounced this footage as fake, while the United Nations concluded that the video showed war crimes. Despite lengthy and extensive forensic analysis by both parties the authenticity of the footage remains debated.

It is the goal of the eyeWitness project to provide individuals with a tool that overcomes these shortcomings such that the photos and videos captured can be used to hold the perpetrators of violations accountable.

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HRAS: How is the eyeWitness app used?

The app is an easy-to-use camera app that collects and embeds, in the images taken by a user, GPS coordinates, date and time, device sensor data and surrounding objects such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks. The collection of this metadata provides verification and context and is encrypted and securely stored within the app together with the images.

The user may then upload the footage directly to a secure storage facility, hosted by LexisNexis and maintained solely by the eyeWitness organisation. In doing so, a chain of custody record verifies that the footage has not been edited or digitally manipulated. Thus, the images attain a level of authentication which allows for their use in investigations or trials.

HRAS: The app was developed to enable honest activists, journalists and citizens to be set apart from potential fraudsters, giving them the credibility and security they need to document gross human rights violations. How is their anonymity protected?

The app user can remain anonymous, by using an alias as a username. eyeWitness does not automatically record any identifying information about the user.

Protection for users, victims and bystanders is a key priority. 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.

 HRAS: How discrete can someone be about using the app?

In designing the app, eyeWitness obtained input from digital security experts and human rights activists in the field. Based on this feedback, the app design incorporates a number of features to promote the safety of the user including:

  • The user can select their own icon from a menu of 40 options.
  • The app stores all footage in a secure storage area within the app, not the standard device gallery. The secure storage area can only be accessed with a passcode swipe created by the user.
  • The user can immediately exit the app’s secure storage area by clicking the camera icon in the top menu bar.
  • The user can delete the app and its contents if arrest or confiscation of the device appears imminent.
  • The images, metadata and user annotations about the images are stored and sent in encrypted format.

HRAS: How is the footage uploaded to eyeWitness?

The app is designed to allow the user to choose a safe location with internet connectivity to submit the information. Therefore, the photos and videos do not simply upload automatically. The user can choose to send the information to eyeWitness immediately after it has been captured or at a later date. Regardless, the information about where and when the photo, video, or audio was taken remains intact.

eyeWitness has analysts to review all footage that is submitted and bring relevant footage to the attention of the appropriate authorities. Footage submitted will be examined remotely and as soon as is humanly possible.

HRAS: How are you dealing with the potential threats of hacking and falsification of the evidence collected by eyeWitness?

Ensuring the integrity of the information collected is at the core of the eyeWitness project. We regularly commission vulnerability and penetration tests from a certified provider, and also regularly update and modify features of the app to enhance the safeguards protecting both the information recorded and the app users themselves.

Additionally, protection of the information is the reason we partnered with industry leader LexisNexis Legal & Professional, renowned for its data hosting capabilities, to safeguard the sensitive and confidential information.

HRAS: Do you envisage any technical difficulties with the system being used at sea or on a moving vessel?

Naturally, it is easier for a user to film when stationary, but that is not the environment of seafarers where human rights are being abused. So, users will undoubtedly film as best as they are able. The alternative is not to film.

However, the technology very much supports use of the app at sea, as it’s designed to capture photos, videos, audio and the metadata needed to authenticate this media in isolated environments lacking in infrastructure. In particular, the geolocation information is collected from satellite data.

HRAS: Are there additional legal challenges associated with use at sea, for example outside territorial waters?

In partnering with Human Rights at Sea, eyeWitness recognises the organisation’s particular legal expertise with cases involving human rights violations occurring at sea. HRAS is well placed to determine how the information collected by the app can best be incorporated into these cases to hold the perpetrators of the abuses accountable.

HRAS: People from nearly every continent have downloaded the app. How are you spreading the word?

The launch of the eyeWitness to Atrocities app was a significant milestone in the eyeWitness project. Everyone involved in the launch has been delighted with the widespread international attention received.

Another major success has been the expansion of the usage of the app and the many partnerships created with organised civil society, as well as individuals, in furthering its remit.

Sensitivity around the issues means that partnerships cannot easily be publicised, so it is wonderful that the collaboration with Human Rights at Sea is one such alliance that can be revealed. The eyeWitness/Human Rights at Sea partnership attests to the important role the eyeWitness app can play in supporting the work of human rights organisations.

As our work to further increase awareness among key groups of potential users continues, early website statistics, showing hits from more than 130 countries, download figures in the Google Play 5,000-10,000 range and positive comments from ordinary citizens and leading human rights organisations alike, are all very encouraging and contribute to our early success.

However, the ultimate success for eyeWitness will be achieving the long-term objective of aiding in the bringing to justice perpetrators of awful crimes through courts of law. We realise eyeWitness is at a nascent stage.

HRAS is pleased to be part of the expansion of eyeWitness in to the maritime environment. Thank-you, Wendy.

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