Why was eyeWitness to Atrocities created?

In November 2010, harrowing footage obtained by UK broadcaster Channel 4 emerged, seemingly showing Sri Lankan troops executing Tamil prisoners. Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the International Bar Association (IBA), was one of the international lawyers asked to examine the video. He found that the authenticity of the footage could not be verified. ‘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,’ he says. 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.

What type of information is the eyeWitness app intended to collect?

The eyeWitness app can record videos, photos, or audio. The app should be used to capture raw footage related to atrocity crimes which include war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture. This footage could be of criminal conduct, including the aftermath of an event (crime base evidence) or images that help to identify the individuals responsible for the criminal conduct, such as uniforms, insignias, license plates, types of weapons (linkage evidence).

Can I use eyeWitness to record witness statements?

For investigation and trial purposes, it may be less helpful to film witness statements. The eyeWitness app is designed to record short pieces of footage. This allows for encryption and transmission of the file.  Also, in general, a court will need to hear the witness statement first hand, so the app does not increase the evidentiary value of the statement.  Further, if the videotaped witness account of the events differs from an account the same witness later gives to investigators, the witness may be discredited. Therefore, it is often better to allow trained investigators to obtain witness statements. While there is no prohibition on sending witness statements to eyeWitness, the user must be aware that eyeWitness may not be able to act on the statements in the same way that we can act on raw footage of events.

What do we mean by “metadata”?

In relation to the app, “metadata” means information about the time/date/location and the hash value of photos, videos and audio recordings. A hash value is a unique identifying code which is calculated based on the pixel value of the original footage. When filming in secure mode, the eyeWitness app captures this information automatically. The metadata is encrypted and not visible to the user, which means it cannot be changed.

What are the requirements for admissibility in court of video/photographic evidence?

eyeWitness has commissioned extensive research into the admissibility of digital evidence. While this is an evolving issue, a study of cases from international, regional, and national courts shows that evidence must be relevant and reliable. Evidence is relevant if it makes a disputed fact more or less likely. Reliability in relation to photos or videos requires the date/time/location of the recording, assurance that the video has not been altered, and assurance that the footage is the original version. The eyeWitness app ensures all three.

Why is footage captured with the eyeWitness app more likely to be admissible?

  1. 1. The eyeWitness app automatically collects GPS coordinates, date and time, and the location of surrounding objects such as cell towers and Wi-Fi networks. This information verifies the date/time/location of the footage.
  2. 2. The app embeds a unique identifying code (known as a hash value) calculated based on the pixel value that is used to verify the footage has not been edited or altered in any way.
  3. 3. When you send footage from the app directly to our secure storage facility you create a trusted chain of custody with eyeWitness. Only footage captured with and sent from the app is stored, ensuring that the stored footage is the original version. This original, encrypted footage is stored offline until it is needed for investigations or trial, which helps to maintain the chain of custody.

How is footage stored?

LexisNexis Legal & Professional, a part of the RELX Group, is hosting the secure repository, database and backup system to store and analyse data collected via our app. LexisNexis Legal & Professional’s industry leading data hosting capabilities provides the eyeWitness program with the same technology used to safeguard sensitive and confidential material for LexisNexis clients every day. The database is not accessible to the public. Only members of the eyeWitness team may access the secure server, subject to strict internal protocols to protect the chain of custody.

Why should I use the eyeWitness app instead of my phone’s camera?

Photos and videos that are captured by mobile devices and uploaded to social media sites often do not contain vital information for verification 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 captured normally 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. For all these reasons, the footage is often of little or no use to legal authorities in investigating or prosecuting the perpetrators. If the footage does reach a court or other tribunals, it is likely to be rejected or given little weight. The eyeWitness app tackles all these challenges to increase the impact of footage in a court of law.

What will eyeWitness do with the footage?

eyeWitness will use the footage it receives to promote accountability for international atrocity crimes, specifically war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and torture.  When footage is sent to us, a copy is transferred to a specialised database for analysis by the eyeWitness legal team. This team analyse the footage to determine whether they may show that an atrocity crime was committed. We then work with local partners where possible, or with appropriate legal authorities in relevant international, regional, and national jurisdictions, to ensure the images are used to bring to justice those who have committed international atrocity crimes. Our goal is to primarily support accountability efforts already underway, so we do not aim to duplicate or undermine ongoing litigation or advocacy work that is already being undertaken.  We are not an advocacy organisation and therefore will not publish the images we receive.

Does eyeWitness verify that the filmed events are not fake?

eyeWitness can verify the time, date and location of the footage and that it has not been digitally altered. We do not investigate the events portrayed in the footage to confirm their accuracy. This confirmation will require further investigation by authorities or organisations that wish to use the footage.

Can the user still send the images to social media or other organisations?

Once you have sent footage to eyeWitness, you will have the option to share a copy without the metadata to social media sites or other organisations. As a result, our app multiplies the impact of the footage you capture by facilitating both awareness raising and evidence collecting. Recipient organisations or media outlets can contact eyeWitness to request that we verify the date and location, and that the footage has not been altered.

Is eyeWitness commissioning investigations?

We do not commission  app users to investigate atrocities. The app is a tool to enhance the efforts of the courageous human rights activists, citizen journalists, and ordinary citizens who use social media every day to share information on the human rights situations in their countries. eyeWitness recognises that untrained investigation may do more harm than good. Therefore, the app is intended to capture the raw footage of the events the user is observing. Any footage related to an international crime will be brought to the attention of the appropriate legal authorities for further investigation.

Who owns the photos and videos sent to eyeWitness?

Under the user agreement the user has full ownership rights to their images and can use them in whatever way they like, once they have saved a copy. The user agreement also allows eyeWitness to use the information it receives towards legal accountability. Users accept the terms of the user agreement when they download the app. Our user agreement is available on the eyeWitness website and from the app gallery menu.