Nearly half of the world’s population owns a smartphone. For those living in conflict zones or suffering human rights violations, these devices are crucial. They help ordinary people record and share the atrocities they witness – alerting the world to their plight, and holding to account those responsible for crimes against humanity.
Yet when they come to post this vital digital evidence on social media platforms, citizens often find their posts censored and permanently removed. Companies such as Facebook have no obligation to preserve the evidence, and have been accused of rushing to moderate content on an ad hoc, sometimes incoherent basis.
Given that Human Rights Watch has called atrocities the “new normal” in the modern world, we must urgently set about creating a system through which citizens across the globe can preserve, share and publish digital evidence of atrocities without the fear of retribution or censorship.
Recent history has shown that social media companies cannot be trusted to preserve vital digital evidence of atrocities. Take the perplexing role of Facebook in Myanmar as an example. Facebook recently banned accounts related to Myanmar’s military in response to the February 2021 coup.
But in 2017, during the genocide of Rohingya Muslims by the same military, Facebook took little action against military-linked accounts. Instead, the platform was accused of whipping up hate in the country, while deleting the posts of Rohingya activists, presumably deeming their evidence of atrocities to have been “shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence”. Facebook has admitted it was “too slow to act” in Myanmar, but that better technology and more content reviewers are now in place to prevent the spread of hate in the country.
This subjective censorship is not unique to Myanmar. In the recent conflict between Gaza and Israel, Facebook silenced dissident views, blocking editors’ accounts at the Gaza-based Shehab News agency. YouTube has also been accused of routinely removing evidence of atrocities during the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. That content is mistakenly flagged by algorithms as violating YouTube’s guidelines, something the platform’s parent company Google accepts “doesn’t always get it right” but takes “incredibly seriously”.
To address this problem, the United Nations Human Rights Council has in recent years established a mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence related to serious international crimes. For Syria it’s called IIIM and for Myanmar it’s the IIMM.
These situation-specific mechanisms have adopted the approach of traditional news outlets, where experienced investigators strategically select individuals and their evidence. Material is selected based on its ability to be used as evidence in court proceedings in the future, where perpetrators of atrocities may be held to account.
Elsewhere, global citizen journalism organisations such as Bellingcat have taken a different approach. They collect evidence from different social media platforms and use a network of volunteers to analyse and investigate it. It was Bellingcat, for instance, behind the unmasking of the Russian man accused of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK city of Salisbury in 2018.
Laudable as they are, these approaches have their flaws. One of them is that they’re centralised. This increases the risk that citizens’ identities could be exposed (via a hack, for instance) which often deters people from coming forward and providing evidence in the first place.
Centralised systems are also susceptible to compromise, subjectivity, discrimination or even destruction. The computer hard drive containing evidence from the whistleblower Edward Snowden was destroyed by the Guardian, under the supervision of officials from the UK intelligence agency GCHQ, in 2013. More recently, Israel’s armed forces bombed the offices of Associated Press and Al Jazeera in Gaza in May 2021, destroying any evidence the news agencies may have been storing.
It’s clear we need a decentralised platform, without gatekeepers or potential single points of failure, to properly preserve people’s digital evidence of atrocities. This could be seen as similar to Wikipedia: distributed and under no one’s direct control.
However, unlike Wikipedia, such a platform must be able to guarantee anonymity to protect citizens from exposure and future retribution. Once evidence is uploaded, it needs to be time-stamped and made immutable, so that no one (including the evidence provider) can edit or delete the evidence. The platform itself also needs to be resistant to any form of cyberattack, so that it can’t be taken down. All this requires engagement with new technologies.
Robust evidence preservation
First, creating a distributed website is relatively easy. Conventional websites use what’s called a hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), which keeps the website’s files stored on a central server or computer. But there are alternative, peer-to-peer protocols (like IPFS, for instance) which enable a website’s files to be stored across many computers. This means no authority can shut it down. Similarly, IPFS can also be used to store evidence-related files in a distributed and decentralised fashion.
Making evidence-sharing anonymous simply requires the website to be integrated with an evidence drop box area supported by Tor, which creates free and open-source software for anonymous communication. News outlets such as the Guardian and the New York Times already use Tor for anonymous file drops. Citizens should also be encouraged to use Tor’s anonymous browser to shield themselves from corporate tracking and government surveillance.
Finally, unlike centralised systems, the evidence uploaded anonymously to this distributed file system (IPFS) must remain immutable and indestructible. This can be achieved by engaging with the blockchain network, which is the technology behind cryptocurrencies.
Blockchain is an open-source distributed ledger or database system in which an updated copy of the records is available to all stakeholders at all times across the globe. This makes it almost impossible for a single person or company to hack everybody’s ledger, ensuring security against cyberattacks. The database stores cryptocurrency transaction data – but blockchain could also store digital evidence.
Fighting injustice and atrocities
The evidence-drop website we propose means victims and witnesses can upload their evidence during a crisis and, when situation is favourable, see it used by investigative journalists or by prosecutors at the International Court of Justice.
Such a website would empower ordinary citizens and whistleblowers to fight injustice and atrocities. At the same time, it would put psychological pressure on perpetrators, who’d know evidence exists of their crimes which cannot be destroyed, altered or invalidated. This shift of power and mindset could reconfigure the relationship between oppressor and oppressed, overturning the “new normal” of atrocities that appears to have taken hold across the world.
Imtiaz Khan, Reader (Associate Professor) in Data Science, Cardiff Metropolitan University and Ali Shahaab, PhD Candidate, Distributed Ledgers / Blockchain Technology, Cardiff Metropolitan University