On Thursday, April 5th, I attended a panel entitled “New Technologies in International Criminal and Human Rights Investigations and Fact-Finding.” The panel explored the increasing use of new technologies, such as social media, satellite data, mobile phone apps, and drone technology, in human rights fact-finding, particularly where sites are inaccessible or pose an especially high risk to human rights investigators.
The panelists first discussed their work with various technologies. For example, Brad Samuels, of SITU Research, works with visual, panoramic, and geospatial representations that must be optimized for use in court. As Mr. Samuels explained, there might be many videos that capture the same moment in time, but from different viewpoints. Part of his job is to use these videos to create an event reconstruction. Jonathan Drake, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, explained that part of the AAAS’s mission is to engage scientists in human rights and to further the use of science in advancing human rights. The AAAS has performed grave site analysis and environmental analysis, using images to uncover lies by foreign governments. They are currently considering how to integrate drones into human rights fact-finding and advancement.
The panel then discussed issues surrounding the use of new and emerging technologies in human rights fact-finding. For example, the use of smartphones to take videos and post them to social media has allowed more crimes to be exposed. At the same time, it can be difficult to verify the accuracy of the information contained in the videos. One way this problem has been addressed is through mobile phone apps, such as the eyeWitness to Atrocities app, which collects location data on the user from three different sources, provides a verified chain of custody for the video, and makes the user’s footage not editable. However, there are benefits and drawbacks to such app technology. On the one hand, it helps human rights workers to overcome access issues in situations where on-the-ground fact-finding would be impossible. It also gives agency to the victims of the atrocities, rather than taking an imperialist, top down approach. Nonetheless, the panelists all noted the need to be cautious when it comes to use of these apps. While initial users have acted in good faith while generating evidence, several of the panelists expressed their concern that later users may have less noble intentions than the early adopters. The panelists also noted the problem of visual bias (the preference for video representations, even in fields like politics where video cannot adequately capture much of the overall picture). Scientific studies suggest that visual bias and the use of video evidence can introduce a host of problems into the courtroom. What happens if we move toward mostly visual evidence, but that evidence is not necessarily representative of the situation as a whole?
Despite these and other issues, the types of evidence that can be captured using technology are extremely valuable to lawyers, judges, and other players in field of human rights work. Technology has led to better results in investigations by providing access to witnesses and to physical documents that would otherwise be impossible to obtain. It allows judges to see the violence for themselves when travel to the site of an atrocity would be impossible. It even allows for more complete crime scene investigations. Nonetheless, the panel urged that we proceed with caution. There will need to be some guidelines or minimal standards for technology-generated evidence so that it will be admissible in court. Tech designers are still much more risk-friendly, and perhaps too willing to let technologies fail, than are human rights attorneys, who need to protect witnesses and victims and to meet the demands of tribunals. Moreover, we must remember that not everyone has access to technology; many of the places where we find human rights offenses are also places where people simply do not have access to mobile phones, apps, and social media. And some of the worst accountability issues occur where there’s awareness anyway. Ultimately, it is critical that those using the new technologies remain aware of its limitations. We should not overemphasize the technological tools just because they are “cool.” In the end, we should use them to bolster cases that are already based on traditional human rights fact-finding.