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The IBA’s “eyeWitness to atrocities” app – really the game changer many say it will be?

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A guest blog by Geraldine Coughlan

The new trend in videos and photos taken on mobile apps by ordinary people, has led to a new trend in evidence in the courtroom. With the help of new technology, people videoing and witnessing atrocities can make a real difference to the justice system. The International Bar Association’s eyeWitness app – new smartphone technology to help witnesses gather evidence that is admissible in criminal courtrooms – is a mobile camera app for capturing photos and videos related to atrocity crimes. The app records and embeds the metadata needed to authenticate the photos and videos so that they can be used in investigations or trials, as User Generated Content (UGC). But is this new trend in smartphone apps really the game changer many say it will be? GCC Law & Media spoke to Wendy Betts, Director of the IBA’s “eyeWitness to atrocities” programme in London, and Justice Richard Goldstone in Johannesburg.

GCC: Wendy, what happens to the footage after it has been recorded by the eyeWitness app on someone’s phone?

Wendy Betts: So, what happens is – once the person using the app has recorded the footage, that person can then send the photos or videos, encrypted via Internet, directly to a secure database that is hosted by Lexis Nexis and maintained by the eyeWitness organisation. And at that point, the eyeWitness staff become advocates for the images, by seeking out appropriate legal authorities to further investigate the situation. Those who capture and share this type of imagery, often at great personal risk, have expressed their frustration that this information that they collect is not always used. So, our purpose is to work to ensure that all relevant footage is used towards investigation and accountability.

GCC: Why is their information, or footage, not used as evidence in court?

Wendy Betts: The footage that ends up on social media tends to be difficult, if not impossible, to verify and authenticate for legal purposes – it’s missing information about where & when it was filmed, it’s difficult to tell if it’s been edited or otherwise altered, so we’re presenting the eyeWitness app that addresses these issues, as a tool that addresses the impact of the footage that these individuals collect by facilitating the necessary verification and authentication of the footage. So, our purpose is to help frontline defenders who are activists, journalists or ordinary citizens, to capture information that has sufficient information embedded in it, to be used for accountability.

GCC: Richard Goldstone, as the ICC becomes more reliant on digital data, the court will need more assistance from frontline documenters. How will that work in practice, behind the scenes?

Richard Goldstone: In practice, obviously when massive war crimes are committed, there are witnesses – victims and onlookers. And if they are in the position to have the eyeWitness app on their smartphones, and to take photographs which can be accepted in court as reliable, that is hugely important, not only for trials, but also for the investigations themselves. Because those photographs can indicate obviously to prosecutors and investigators, what should be investigated and where, and what the relevant times are. Imagine in Tahrir Square in Egypt a few years ago, if there would have been eyeWitness apps available, with hundreds of people in the Square,  capturing the criminal actions of the Egyptian army – that would have been hugely impressive, not only from a forensic point of view, but also obviously from the point of view of the media. One other important aspect of the eyeWitness app is that people can remain anonymous. Very frequently, witnesses are justifiably in fear of their lives if they go public, but by pressing a button they can anonymously send the images through to eyeWitness in London, and that should encourage people to make use of the app.

GCC: Wendy – this gap between frontline documenters and human rights lawyers is world wide – so, what tools is eyeWitness now using, to bridge it?

Wendy Betts: When we’re looking at admissible avidence, that evidence must be both relevant and reliable, so it has to relate to the crimes that the human rights lawyers are trying to prove, and it has to be believable. So, the eyeWitness app collects the information and footage needed to meet the reliability standards for this footage, then there are other organisations that we are working with, with complementary resources to help bridge this gap. For example, Witness in New York is developing guidance on how to capture video and what to capture, to help meet the relevancy standards. Then there are tools such as the Citizens’ Evidence Lab, by Amnesty International, which helps with the verification of information that has shown up on open source platforms. So, the eyeWitness app collects information at the point of capture, to verify the date and location, and that footage is unaltered. And then we can work together with these other programmes and tools, to completely bridge the gap between the information collected in the field, and what is provided to human rights lawyers.

GCC: But eyeWitness is essentially about empowering citizens, as well as bridging the gap between activists and lawyers. How can a mobile app do justice to that?

Wendy Betts: In that situation, citizens on the ground where these abuses are taking place, are the first, and often the only witnesses to these violations. So the eyeWitness app really puts in their hands a tool they can use to capture footage, both photos and videos, that can be believed. And because they can be believed, they can be used to hold perpetrators accountable.

GCC: Can you give an example of what good and reliable and trustworthy video linkage evidence could be?

Wendy Betts: Human rights lawyers need both the crime-based evidence, which shows the event taking place, as well as linkage evidence, which is the evidence used to link the high-level perpetrators who may not be at the scene of the crime, to those events. So, users on the ground can capture information on both types, so in terms of linkage evidence specifically, some examples are that they could take videos or photos of uniforms, insignias, license plates, weapon serial numbers, which forces are manning checkpoints. Information such as this can help link attacks on the ground back to the responsible party.

GCC: And finally, Richard Goldstone, the digital world of images is a level playing field. It’s not just about activists and lawyers – so can’t perpetrators, as well as prosecutors, also use cameras to push their cases?

Richard Goldstone: Absolutely. The essence of any justice system, and particularly perhaps, in the international justice system, the fairness of trials is paramount. And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. But in this case, fewer perpetrators would be in a position to use these images to establish their innocence, and to prove that the evidence against them is not correct. Obviously, eyeWitness will have its cache of photographs, and they will be made available not only to prosecutors, but also to people who are accused. And once the word gets around, this will become an important resource for all sides to make use of.

You can listen to GCC Law & Media’s podcast on the eyeWitness app, on www.gcclaw.nl.

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