Amnesty platform validates civilian conflict footage (Wired UK)

Citizen Evidence Lab: How To Authenticate YouTube VideosChristoph Koettl

Amnesty International has launched a website that is designed to
help human rights researchers and journalists verify civilian video

The Citizen Evidence
has been developed to help handle new digital data streams
coming from conflict zones and other human rights hotspots. It
provides verification tools, techniques and best practice case
studies for assessing user-generated content. It was borne out of
Amnesty’s Sensor Project, which seeks to advance the power of human
rights legal defence.

Christoph Koettl, who created the site, told that
civilian video offers up potential evidence of human rights
violations, including police brutality and even war crimes.
“Citizen media is increasingly being featured in news coverage and
cited as evidence in human rights investigations and even criminal
proceedings. But what happens when these videos are staged,
manipulated or presented in the wrong context?”

“Wrongly-identified footage can cause a lot of damage to our
credibility,” Koettl explains. “We don’t see a lot of manipulated
videos, but we do see a lot of videos shared in the wrong context
— either old footage or the completely wrong location or

A surge in user-generated content was most recently noticed in
the context of the armed conflict in Syria. Huge numbers of videos
— often shot on mobile phones — were flooding into social media.
Some of them are genuine, but some were being mislabelled either
intentionally or mistakenly.

“We used to rely on remote sensing and satellite imagery to
monitor conflict situations. But now, in places like Syria, we have
too much information popping up on YouTube and social media
platforms,” he adds. “How can we take advantage of this potential
new evidence?”

Citizen Evidence Lab provides a step-by-step guide for human
rights workers and journalists to validate civilian video,
including guidance on tracking down original footage and locating
particular events. It’s based on authentication techniques that
Koettl has learnt over the last two years, with input from
organisations such as Witness, the Citizen Media Evidence Project
and those behind the Verification Handbook.

“Although there are other resources out there, we wanted to do
something a little more interactive — something that activists can
use in their day-to-day work,” he said.

Verifying Citizen Video with Google EarthChristoph Koettl

The site first of all offers a step-by-step “stress test” of any
video evidence. A questionnaire aims to wheedle out any dodgy
footage. Things to look for include whether the person who uploaded
the video has uploaded others from the same place, whether there
are other social media accounts attached to it, when they uploaded
the footage, where it was shot, etc. Activists are encouraged to
check whether the video has been uploaded by someone else before by
performing a reverse images search on the thumbnails generated for
the video — this often reveals that videos purporting to be from,
say, Syria are in fact from somewhere else dating from several
years ago. They are also asked to log things like the insignia on
clothing worn in the videos, logos, languages, accents, road signs,
landmarks, license plates — all of which may offer clues as to
where the footage was shot. There are links to look up historical
weather data to check whether the supposed date of filming matches
the weather conditions shown in the video.

“We tested the platform with a video that was reportedly from
Syria showing an extrajudicial execution. I did a reverse images
search on the video and found about 50 other search results dating
from 2012. It took me two minutes to find out — this process might
have taken several hours before.”

By making the site public today (8 June), Koettl is inviting
constructive feedback on how to improve the tools available. “We
want to use the crowds to make it stronger.”

One critical challenge is working out how to format evidence in
a way that is admissible in court in order to demonstrate crimes
against humanity, which constitutes a widespread and systematic

The plan is to eventually develop the platform into more of a
database of verified — and debunked — content. Koettl hopes to be
able to automate much more of the process in order to scale the

“Now that we’ve got relatively good at validating videos, how do
we do it for 600,000 videos? We will have to work with computer
scientists to analyse the huge amount of data.”

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