eyeWitness: Using digital technology to hold war criminals accountable

by Barbora Holicka

Citizen journalism where original content is recorded in conflict zones using portable technology such as mobile phones has become important in presenting citizens with an unprecedented opportunity to play an important role in documenting conflicts and expose war crimes in near-to-real time. However so far we were unable to satisfactorily verify the authenticity of the incoming footage and on more than one occasion images and video supposedly recorded in war zones turned out to be fake. Due to the issues with verification even the genuine content isn’t admissible as evidence in the court of law and therefore cannot be relied on to help hold the perpetrators accountable. However this might soon change with the new digital innovation launched last week. The mobile phone app eyeWitness to Atrocities which is now available to download for free was specifically developed to record, verify and securely store photos, video and audio files documenting human rights abuses and help to bring the war criminals to justice. 

Unverified data is an enormous problem in human rights and atrocity crime cases. Prosecutors have to rely on witness testimony, forensic evidence or, if available, documents. These can be challenged by defence counsel.
— David Scheffer, lawyer and academic, IBA 2015
Secure view is distinguished by blue frame and allows the user to access the secret gallery through a password swipe.

Secure view is distinguished by blue frame and allows the user to access the secret gallery through a password swipe.

The new app developed by the International Bar Association in collaboration with the information firm LexisNexis promises to revolutionize the way we collect evidence of atrocities. The app records and embeds metadata at the point of capture which means that any data recorded through the app can be verified for its authenticity including date, time and location as well as making sure the material has not been edited or otherwise altered. All data is stored securely in an encrypted secret gallery accessible only through a password swipe from where it can be uploaded directly via internet or hand delivered on SD card to a storage facility maintained by the eyeWitness organisation, thus creating a trusted chain of custody.  The data verification facilitated by the eyeWitness organisation means that the recorded information could be used as an evidence in the court of law. Apart from recognizing genuine testimonies from frauds, it might now also become easier to bring the perpetrators to justice and hold them accountable for their crimes.

The app icon can be changed to appear innocent.

The app icon can be changed to appear innocent.

The app has very simple interface, is intuitively easy to use and looks like any photography app including its icon that can be masked to appear ‘innocent’. However, on the inside the app has some special features specific to its purpose. For instance, upon recording a video or taking a picture the user is guided by the app to add tags and notes containing relevant information that might help the persecution. This information will be stored together with the file. There are tips for recording safely and a panic button which deletes the app and its contents instantly to protect the user while the uploaded evidence is still safely stored in the eyeWitness data storage. In order to protect the evidence as well as the user there is no trace of the recorded data on the standard device gallery. The eyeWitness take it on themselves to analyse the received data and identify appropriate authorities who can carry out further investigation.

The app was inspired by the horrific execution footage obtained by the Channel 4 in 2010. The video seems to be showing Sri Lankan soldiers shooting Tamil prisoners including women at point-blank. The footage was fiercely rejected by the Rajapaksa government as fake, staged by the ‘anti-Sri Lankan separatist lobby’. The thorough inspection of films took months and even then genuinity of the video could not be proven with certainty. Mark Mills, the executive director of the International Bar Association said: ‘A news agency had a powerful piece of evidence, but without being able to verify its authenticity it would have little relevance for a court proceeding. 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.’

Four years on the eyeWitness to Atrocities app was born with the unique capability to authenticate and securely store data while protecting anonymity of its users and with minimal extra analysis necessary. The app has a real potential to separate honest journalists, activists and citizens from fraudsters and help shine the light on human rights abuses: ‘We desperately need this kind of evidence in the courtroom,’ said David Scheffer, the former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. ‘Years from now we will be asking ourselves what it was like when the visual record did not exist.’ 

The eyeWitness to Atrocities app is now available in Play Store.

Barbora Holicka is based in London where she works as a freelance researcher and writer with a particular interest in nutrition, food security and human rights. She holds a BA in Development Studies & International Relations and had previously worked on public health related projects for local NGOs in the slums of Colombo, Sri Lanka and Nairobi, Kenya.



BBC, eyeWitness App Lets Smartphones Report War Crimes, Available here, Accessed July 2015

eyeWitness to Atrocities, www.eyewitnessproject.org, Accessed July 2015

International Bar Association, eyeWitness: Witnessing Atrocity, Available here, Accessed: July 2015

The Guardian, eyeWitness to Atrocities: the App Aimed at Bringing War Criminals to Justice, Available here, Accessed July 2015