Imagine that during street protests to oust a brutal dictator, a protester witnesses a group of policemen sexually assaulting a woman. The protester is a safe enough distance away to shoot the footage with her cell-phone camera. She wants to upload the video onto YouTube, to provoke a sense of outrage among her fellow citizens, but also to tell the world what is going on in her country, which has been locked down to foreign journalists.
She realizes the gravity of the situation and what is at stake. She fears she could be identified or that the woman being assaulted would rather her ordeal be kept private. In her video, there are protesters in the foreground of the shot that she worries could be exposed and hunted down by the security services.
These are not hypothetical examples but the daily real-world challenges of protesters and activists. In recent years, the authorities in Iran and Belarus have tried to identity activists from videos posted online, sometimes using sophisticated facial-recognition technology. After unrest in western Kazakhstan in December, the authorities attempted to track down the people who filmed on their cell phones police shooting live rounds at protesters.
A pair of new apps
, launched via a collaboration between WITNESS
, The Guardian Project
, and the International Bar Association
, are attempting to ensure better "visual anonymity" and "visual privacy" for activists -- but also to preserve that video for posterity.
ObscuraCam, which is currently only built for Android, allows users to post videos online with pixilated faces to protect their identities. It can also delete potentially incriminating metadata attached to the video. (The photo version of ObscuraCam is in active use but the video version is in trial and should have a general release within the next two months.)
Imagine, though, that in our activist's country, the regime is overthrown and a transitional government takes power. A truth commission is set up and a UN tribunal is tasked with investigating atrocities. The activist wants to share her video of the sexual assault and see the perpetrators punished. In a court of law, however, the grainy footage is not enough. To be admissible as evidence, more context is needed.
That's where InformaCam, a plug-in to ObscuraCam, comes in.
The app aims to build "a powerful tool to create iron-clad digital images and video that could, should the occasion arise, be used in courts of law to bring justice." In short, InformaCam allows users to submit video but with metadata attached. The Guardian Project's blog explains:
The metadata includes information like the user’s current GPS coordinates, altitude, compass bearing, light meter readings, the signatures of neighboring devices, cell towers, and wifi networks; and serves to shed light on the exact circumstances and contexts under which the digital image was taken. [...]
This means that a version of an image can be created with any sensitive image data and metadata preserved and encrypted to trusted entities, along with a redacted version that has its metadata stripped which can be easily shared to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, or any public service the user wishes to use.
It's the metadata that is crucial for InformaCam. For the sake of posterity, the app allows the user to add context; for instance, whether or not the subject of the video gave their permission to be filmed. It can also provide information about the creator's intent, how the media was acquired, and "if a particular image or video is a duplicate of another."
InformaCam also allows the user to send the image or video to "trusted destinations," which could be "an organization, a news outlet, or any friend whose PGP key is known to you."
Destinations -- or even better, multiple destinations -- are important in a world where governments can lean on big tech companies to give up information or where videos are regularly flagged as abusive and taken down for terms of service violations. One of the "trusted destinations" is WITNESS HQ, an organization which has a long history in dealing with sensitive human-rights video. (UPDATE: Sam from WITNESS e-mailed me to clarify that "WITNESS HQ probably won't act as a destination for uploads but is actively encouraging other potential destinations for InformaCam material.")
For the app to provide anonymity, it needs to be secure. Via e-mail, Nathan Freitas, lead developer at The Guardian Project, wrote this:
We do not practice "Security by Obscurity" -- meaning that many commercial vendors provide products that are only secure because people do not understand how the security works inside. Instead, the type of security we use works precisely because it is still secure, even if you know how it works, and because many, many people have pored over the code to address weaknesses.
In the future, the apps will be available for Beta testing -- to allow hackers to try to find security holes. Freitas says that they are taking an iterative approach to the development, "where we add, test, and deploy specific features. We aren't building the entire solution and saying it is 'done' in one go, because history has shown that this produces poor software."
Identity-protecting apps like ObscuraCam could feasibly have a downside, by enabling criminals to stay hidden. A recent incident in the United States involved a college football fan putting his genitals on the face of a passed-out rival fan. The video went viral, but it might have been harder for police to identify the man if he had been able to obscure his identity. The same goes for all those horrible videos of skinheads attacking minorities that pop up on YouTube.
Analogous to that, not everyone using proxies or anonymizers are dissidents in repressive regimes. There are plenty of child pornographers, too.
Another challenge with apps such as ObscuraCam and InformaCam is to engage a large user-base. Activists are an easy sell: They're generally more tech-literate and often have links to the NGOs producing such apps. But it might be harder to reach your average YouTube-using Joe, who happens to be in the right place at the right time to bear witness.
ObscuraCam is aimed more for everyday use, while according to one of the developers on the project, InformaCam is "focused initially on a narrower audience, who need higher levels of security, privacy controls, and may use in critical situations of high risk."
For the creators, developing such apps could also be a means to a greater end: Getting the likes of YouTube or Flickr or cell-phone manufacturers to build such functionality into their platforms and to help build visual privacy and anonymity into code.
Sam Gregory, program director at WITNESS, says, "We’re advocating and recommending publicly to tech companies and developers to consider these concerns and to ask themselves: Could I build this functionality into my mass-market products?"
If successful, this kind of "app advocacy" could mean that such pixilation or redaction functionality becomes standard on digital cameras and cell phones. For activists -- and maybe pranking college kids -- that could be a huge boon.