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Smartphone app could put war criminals in the dock



Initiative by international lawyers' group makes atrocity videos admissable in court

Social media sites are full of grim footage of atrocities from conflicts around the world; but it is rarely admissable as evidence in court, especially if the person who collected it cannot testify in person. 

Global lawyers' group the International Bar Association is aiming to tackle the problem with a new smartphone app, eyeWitness. It records video or still footage along with metadata that verifies when and where it was taken and stores it securely in a 'virtual evidence locker'.

eyeWitness has been downloaded in more than 130 countries since it was released in June, David W Rivkin, president of the International Bar Association, said this week. 

Authentication challenge

The idea for the app came in 2010 when broadcaster Channel 4 contacted the bar association to verify what it believed was video evidence of war crimes committed at the end of Sri Lanka's civil war. Mark Ellis, the association's executive director, agreed that the video depicted war crimes, but said question marks over its authentication could make it difficult to use in a court. He found the same went for many other videos of atrocities.

In developing eyeWitness, the project team began with the key facts a court would need to accept a video or photo as substantial evidence, assuming that the individual who shot the footage would not be available to testify. These were encoded as a set of date and location markers - collected by GPS and Wi-Fi connections, embedded as metadata in a file and which could show whether the file had been edited or tampered with.

The file can then be sent over the internet, or physically via SD card, to a secure repository hosted by legal publisher LexisNexis. One copy of the material remains encrypted, while another is decrypted and analysed by legal experts. If it shows anything that might constitute evidence of a human rights atrocity – war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity or torture – it is sent to the relevant jurisdiction for further investigation.

Chain of custody

Uploaded videos are stored in a 'virtual evidence locker' with a clear chain of custody. "We don't even need to know who is taking the video," Ellis said.

To safeguard users, the app separates eyeWitness material from a phone's regular photo gallery so that the images cannot be seen if the phone is seized. The app can also be fully deleted.

"I look forward to the first conviction of a war criminal based on eyeWitness evidence," Rivkin said.



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