The Next Generation of Human Rights Researchers: U of T Students Hone their Digital Verification Skills

An image captured on a smartphone in the aftermath of an attack on civilians sheltered within a warzone or a video posted on YouTube of distant gunfire can be valuable evidence for human rights advocates reporting on war crimes and violations of international human rights treaties. Before such content can be relied upon, it must be verified to sort fact from “fake news.” Enter Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps (DVC).

What is the Digital Verification Corps?

The DVC is a network of volunteers that review and verify digital content, including pictures and videos of alleged human rights abuses. In many cases, these images come from locations that are not easily accessible to human rights researchers – either due to safety concerns or government opposition. The DVC verifies the credibility of sources by gathering external information and evaluating an image’s markers of authenticity, such as its location, the time and date of upload, and credibility of the uploader. The DVC is trained to identify discrepancies and to distinguish legitimate content from “fake news”. Human rights researchers can then rely on verified social media and citizen journalism in their investigations while maintaining rigorous standards of credibility. The verified content can also be used to build cases in domestic and international courts against those who have violated international human rights treaties and/or committed war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The DVC at U of T

In January 2017, the University of Toronto joined the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Essex and the University of Pretoria, to become the DVC’s fourth verification team. As members of the International Human Rights Program’s (IHRP) newest working group, participating students received extensive training on strategies and tools for verifying digital content. Since then, the group has verified images from student protests in Bahrain and Niger, a protest camp in Morocco, military convoys in Yemen, and key events from the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt. The group has also verified video footage for the Syrian Archive Project – an initiative that collects open source documentation concerning rights violations and other crimes committed by all sides during the Syrian conflict.

U of T students hone their skills at DVC Summit

In June 2017, four students from the DVC working group (Calum Agnew, Alexandria Matic, Bethanie Pascutto, and Michael Sproule) along with the Director of IHRP, Samer Muscati, travelled to the University of California, Berkeley to attend the first annual DVC Summit. The Summit brought together students from each of the DVC’s partner institutions to review the objectives, highlights and accomplishments of the program in its first year. Notably, students in the DVC reviewed thousands of hours of video footage and investigated reports of human rights violations in dozens of countries.

Experts in open source investigation methods also provided further training on digital verification tools. “The conference was an amazing opportunity to learn from leaders in the field. We had the chance to see some cutting-edge techniques, applied to high-profile investigations”, Calum Agnew commented. The student attendees had the opportunity to hear from:

  • Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, an investigative search network;
  • Malachy Browne, a senior story producer with the New York Times, specializing in social media journalism; and
  • Sam Dubberley, Amnesty International’s leader of the DVC.

A snapshot of lessons learned

Anatomy of an Investigation I—Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat

By recounting two of Bellingcat’s investigations to the audience, the presentation given by Eliot Higgins demonstrated the importance of digital verification.

Using open source evidence, Bellingcat was able to confirm that Russia was responsible for the downing of flight MH17. The organization identified the weapon used to shoot down the plane, and tracked its path from Russia into separatist-held territory in Ukraine. After the Russian Ministry of Defence submitted inaccurate information about the flight, including edited satellite imagery, Bellingcat exposed the Russian government’s efforts to mislead the public about its involvement in the attack.

Another example of Bellingcat’s remarkable work was the result of reports related to Russian and Syrian airstrikes hitting Al-Sakhour hospital in Aleppo, Syria in September and October 2016. The Russian government claimed that the hospital had not been bombed, relying on images that allegedly supported its position. Using photos, videos, and satellite imagery from before and after the bombing, as well as footage from the security cameras inside the building, Bellingcat had forensic architects create a virtual 3D model of the hospital. That model was used to demonstrate that the damage was caused by multiple bombings during this period.

Cybersecurity – Bill Marczak

The session on cybersecurity focused on the hazards specific to those working with the DVC. Due to the sensitivity of information verified by the DVC, the group has to be aware of cybersecurity risks. Not only is there a concern that third-parties might access content, but students face the additional risk of being identified as a security risk by customs and immigration personnel. The session on cybersecurity was dedicated to educating students on the signs of phishing and hacking, and approaches to traveling with sensitive information.

The Road Ahead

Moving forward, the DVC working group will continue working with its international partners to build a robust team of human rights investigators. We hope that these efforts will make a tangible contribution to Amnesty International’s advocacy around the world, and highlight the lived experiences of those whose rights have been violated. “Through the DVC our eventual goal is for all universities to include modules on open source investigation. We know these skills are becoming more and more important as time goes on”, said Sam Dubberley of Amnesty. “With 27 projects in our first year, it just proves how central open source investigation is becoming to Amnesty’s work – and that of other human rights NGOs.  It’s also shown what a great partner the University of Toronto is for this project”.