Do you ever wonder if some of those wacky YouTube videos are real or simply constructed? Have you ever heard a newscaster sadly announce that they could not authenticate a potentially important video? Well, if you have doubts about what you’re watching, then you’re not alone. The courts are equally suspicious about digital records and don’t allow them to be used as evidence. As a result, many criminals are often free to go back to business as usual.
The problem with digital photos, videos, or audio recordings is that they can be so easily manipulated to prove what a person wants them to prove. But it’s worse than this. Videos of important human rights violations that cannot be completely authenticated may result in no corrective actions being taken, encouraging those who perpetrate such atrocities to continue doing so. For example, in August, 2013, Syrian opposition groups posted a number of videos of a poison gas attack by the Syrian government on the eastern suburbs of Damascus. The attack resulted in the deaths of over 1,300 people. However, according to the report, “none of the videos could be independently verified.” CNN took a similar stance saying, “CNN could not immediately verify where or when the videos were recorded”. In fact, a spokesman for the Syrian government remarked, “This is a media war but the way they think is really stupid. Would you imagine that we would use chemical weapons where a UN team is here to inspect?” He went on to claim that the opposition was the perpetrator of the attack and did it to make the government look bad.
The truth was obscured so much that the end result was a stalemate. The controversy ended in inaction. French President Holland admitted that the event would “require verification and confirmation”; however, the Syrian government would not allow UN observers into the area. Then, Russia claimed it was the opposition that would not allow the observers in. This was followed by a report stating that the photos and videos of the attack were staged. Putin called the allegations of Syrian government involvement, “utter nonsense”. Russia also claimed to have obtained videos of rebels firing these rockets. It seemed impossible to determine what was true and what wasn’t. Had the original videos been authenticated, it may have forced President Obama to take action, as he had already set a red line based on chemical weapon use the year before:
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
But there just wasn’t enough evidence to take any action and the red line faded away. Eventually, the UN was allowed into the area and reported “convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used.” Still, they could not connect either side to the attack. Photos, such as the following, purportedly showing a missile that delivered the chemicals, could not be authenticated.
Later, when it appeared that the West might get involved militarily, the Syrian government said it would hand over all chemical weapons. However, they apparently did not, as chlorine gas attacks have continued until June 9th of this year. Again, the videos and photos of these recent attacks could not be confirmed.
Now, maybe, this is all about to change. The International Bar Association of London has developed a free app that allows eyewitnesses to human rights violations to take photos and videos that can be used as evidence in court. The app, called eyeWitness to Atrocities, is now available for Android devices. Basically, the app adds metadata, such as a time stamp and GPS location, to a video or photo. It also embeds information on “device movement data, and location of surrounding objects such as cell towers and Wi-Fi networks”. In addition, it checks pixel numbers to ensure that the image has not been altered from the original. The photo or video can then be encrypted and uploaded to safe storage site, LexisNexis. Once there, the files are decrypted and a team of lawyers from the IBA will examine the footage and decide whether it should be submitted to an international war crimes tribunal. The IBA has worked with the international criminal court (ICC), the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and former prosecutors to insure that the videos would be accepted as evidence in any trials.
The main question seems to be that of security. First of all, what steps can be taken to protect those who may be using the app? Certainly, if users of the app were discovered recording something that the authorities didn’t want recorded, those recording the event could be in trouble. Someone could always seize their smartphone and either keep it or delete any digital evidence it may have. If authorities keep the device, there is really not much the owner can do except hope that the images they may have taken are not found. There are several ways the images can be secured by the app to prevent this.
First of all, photos and videos taken through the app are stored in a special secured location on the device (not the usual photo gallery) that can only be entered with a passcode swipe that the user has established. The eyeWitness to Atrocities app comes with a set of icons to choose from so that those looking at the device cannot readily identify that the app is installed on it. In the extreme case, there is a ‘dispose’ button that will automatically delete the app from the device. This ‘button’ is found in the secure gallery and the camera menu which can only be identified by 3 vertical dots.
The next question to ask is about the security of the device the app is placed on. In short, can the app be hacked? A lot depends on the profile of the person making the video or taking the photographs. If the person is a well known human rights activist or opposition member, there is at least some chance that the authorities have already installed malware on the eyewitness’ device. Such malware could allow them to do anything with the device that the user can do. They could, for example, shut down the camera or delete the app. Barring that, they could undertake some sort of man-in-the-middle attack to intercept the photos before they reached the cloud storage site. This may only get them encrypted digital information, but at least the lawyers wouldn’t get it. And, finally, they could launch some sort of attack against the storage site itself. They could either try to make it inaccessible with a DDoS attack or they could penetrate the site in any number of ways and, at the extreme end, even steal the encryption key, so that they could decrypt anything they may have gained from compromised devices or MITM attacks.
The bad news is that the secure storage site, LexisNexis, suffered an attack that was discovered in 2013. How long the malware had been on their servers before being discovered is difficult to say. We only know that it was connected to the notorious, Russian identity thief, Armand Ayakimyan. The company will also not tell us what information was compromised by the attack. All we’re left with is knowing that an attack is possible, which should be no surprise to anyone. In addition, the makers of the eyeWitness to Atrocities app warn users that pressing the ‘dispose’ button will not eliminate all evidence of encrypted files; “The user should be aware that even after the app is deleted, bits of encrypted information will remain on the device.” Whether these encrypted scraps could be linked to the app and, by extension, to the purposes of the person who did the recording is not clear. In other words, and as the developers of the app emphasize, it is up to those who use the app to determine whether the risks involved justify the app’s use.
These shortcomings aside, it is refreshing to finally see an app with a conscience. I can see this becoming a required tool for any journalist operating in a place where human rights violations are possible. In the future, the eyeWitness model may be adapted for use with police body cameras and other law enforcement work. This mode of verification could be extended to security and dashboard cameras as well. Who knows? Maybe someday any video on YouTube without some authenticity stamp will simply not be taken seriously.