Jun 8 3:33 PM

Phone app designed to bear witness to atrocities

Bosnians mourn over coffins of newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the preparation for a mass burial at the Potocari memorial cemetery near Srebrenica in 2010. Developers of the eyeWitness app said new technology could better document such massacres in the future.
Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP / Getty Images

A new mobile phone app that facilitates the documentation and authentication of alleged war crimes and human rights abuses was launched today. The London-based International Bar Association (IBA) developed the technology in coordination with legal data company LexisNexis and the law firm DLA Piper to help human rights campaigners, citizen journalists and bystanders take and store photographs, video and/or audio, and then upload encrypted files to a secure server in the United States. The files would then be evaluated by a team of lawyers for possible use in proceedings such as those before the U.N.’s International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The application, called eyeWitness to Atrocities, at first appears similar to a number of civil liberties apps launched in the U.S. that were designed to help civilians document aggressive and abusive tactics by the police. But the IBA said their interest is in human rights abuses common to war zones, where video in the past has been hard to authenticate.

The eyeWitness app will look like a standard photo application, but will automatically stamp recordings with GPS time and location data, as well as provide a way to track pixel counts, a method of detecting whether video has been edited. EyeWitness operates in “secure mode,” but also includes a panic button, which will instantly delete the files and the app itself from the phone to prevent detection by hostile officials or security forces.

The app is initially available only for Android, which, developers said, is the dominant operating system in areas where eyeWitness could be most useful.

Lawyers on the project cited footage of human rights abuses from the battle with Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, much of which could not be authenticated at a level that would have made it admissible in court. They said eyeWitness was created so that the provenance and “chain of custody” of recorded files would be “beyond question.”

Sponsors of the program pointed to accusations of torture, war crimes and genocide in conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Ukraine, but said they hoped the tools would eventually also help document abuses by security and paramilitary forces in civil settings.

The former South African judge and international war crimes prosecutor, Richard Goldstone, who was on the board that oversaw the development of eyeWitness, was very positive about its possibilities as an enforcement tool, but stressed the images would need to be corroborated by testimony. The two together, however, would, in Goldstone’s words, be “hugely important” in prosecutions, and could “act as a deterrent” to abuse by police and security forces.

But with the optimism should come a word of caution. While the images and evidence of the mobile age has undoubtedly shifted the conversation in many situations — from local police tactics to international war crimes — the new panopticon has proven something less than a panacea. From the absence of any legal repercussions following the digitally documented death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York Police officer, to the debates over how to read images of alleged gas attacks in Syria, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but to eventually save lives and end suffering, other systemic changes will have to accompany this evidentiary innovation.

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