Collecting, preserving, and verifying online evidence of human rights violations
The amount of digital information available online presents human rights practitioners with a valuable opportunity to document abuses and address a broad scope of issues, but collecting the right information requires specialized skills and tools.
The amount of digital information we produce and consume is exponentially expanding: today’s Internet is estimated to contain nearly five billion web pages. How big is this? The 680 billion pieces of paper needed to print the entire Internet would require logging 2% of the remaining Amazon rainforest. The extraordinary size of the digital information firehose that surrounds our existence has affected most areas of human life.
In the context of human rights practice, few things have influenced fact-finding and evidence gathering more than the emergence of online video and user-generated content in social media, blogs, and wikis. The global penetration of camera-equipped phones and the emergence of services such as Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Telegram, have transformed millions of individuals into information sources and content creators. Since the first video was uploaded to YouTube only 12 years ago, the amount of video publically available to practitioners to monitor and document human rights violations has exploded: there are now more than one billion unique videos available from that provider alone.
This increasing wealth of digital information presents human rights practitioners with a valuable opportunity to reach issues and areas previously impossible. But such opportunity comes with important challenges around collection, preservation, and verification. Collection is key, because it requires filtering and discovering relevant material in a sea of content that grows and changes in real-time. There are half a million tweets created every minute, and finding the right information requires specialized skills and tools. Preservation is also critical because much of this information is ephemeral or controlled by third parties that are commonly motivated by commercial interests rather than public interest. In many cases, unless activists quickly download videos or otherwise preserve them, evidence of human rights abuses can be removed for numerous reasons, from politically motivated take down requests and terms of services violations, to security and ethical concerns related to the subjects they involve. Proving the authenticity of material available online can be extremely challenging as well. For example, a video uploaded to a commonly used platform like YouTube or Twitter often shows minimal information. Unless the original author is a trusted source or decides to deliberately add contextual information, practitioners are often limited in their ability to verify the online content they discover.
Preservation and verification are critical to human rights activists for a few additional reasons. First, the probative or evidentiary value of video has been long understood by advocates in all corners of the world. As the International Bar Association notes, “the state-of-the-art for investigating, processing and presenting digital and technologically derived evidence is evolving rapidly and becoming ever more central to prosecutions of serious crimes”. Thus, practitioners need to consider that their fact-finding efforts could become relevant to formal accountability and justice efforts. Also, as the production of information is simplified and globally distributed, we see an increase in the deliberate production of fake news and misinformation campaigns. Human rights advocacy often happens in the public sphere, where reputation, reliability, and trust are a valuable currency. The propagation of disinformation is detrimental not only to campaigns, but also to NGOs and individual activists.
The propagation of disinformation is detrimental not only to campaigns, but also to NGOs and individual activists
Human rights organizations could benefit from exploring existing frameworks for the discovery and management of online information, like the Electronic Discovery Reference Model (EDRM) developed by Duke University School of Law. While this model is largely aimed at litigation, its adaptation can provide methodological strength to documentation efforts. An exemplary case is the Syrian Archive, which adopts such a framework and enhances it with a harm prevention and risk mitigation strategy.
Besides seemingly complex frameworks like the one above, there are a handful of tools and techniques available that can enhance their ability to preserve and verify content. The Verification Handbook, by the European Journalism Centre, offers a valuable guide to verifying digital content. Available in multiple languages, it is a great resource for tools and uses cases that human rights practitioners could incorporate in their work. Experienced organizations like WITNESS, which have focused on video for human rights since 1992, created a Video as Evidence Field Guide.
In addition, Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab has documented a wide range of tactics and strategies ranging from technical options for specific tasks to the ethical safeguards necessary to protect the subjects referenced in online material. Newer organizations like Bellingcat, increasingly known for their effective use of Open Source Intelligence or OSINT (i.e., data collected from publicly available sources), and FirstDraft News, a nonprofit coalition focused on trust and truth in the digital age, often document and share the techniques used in their verification work. Also, keeping an eye on what law enforcement agencies and forensic scientists do, could provide some valuable insights as to what is recognized as standard tools for environments that consider not only chain of custody, but also admissibility in a court of law.
There are several tools with low barriers or learning curves that practitioners can use to improve or simplify their verification and preservation workflows. Check is a service focused on collaborative and distributed verification workflows; Video Vault enables usable preservation of online content; HTTrack (Unix), DeepVaccum (OSX) and WinHTTrack (Windows) allow for easy website copying; and finally, the Internet Archive, perhaps the most renowned public interest archival project, offers usable ways to submit pages and resources to their repository.
In an interconnected world human rights information should be continuously updated and logged to continue world learning and sharing.
Practitioners are certainly not alone in this effort to use technology and can access resources like the Human Rights Methodology Lab, which brings together experts to provide advice on human rights research projects in order to innovate and advance research methodology; the Digital Verification Corps, which trains human rights practitioners on the techniques used for collection and verification of online material; UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center open source investigations lab, which works on verifying and documenting human rights violations and potential war crimes with a globally distributed team of students and experts; and the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University, which focuses on the development and application of scientific methods for collecting, analyzing, and communicating human rights information.
There is a myriad of opportunities for human rights fact-finding opened by our ever-growing use of technology. For them to become an integral and sustainable part of human rights practice, it is paramount that we continuously review and update the methodologies we put in practice to adapt to these new conditions—without losing the rigorous research that characterizes effective human rights work.
Enrique Piracés manages the Human Rights Technology Program at the Center for Human Rights Science, Carnegie Mellon University.