Invisible gorillas and human rights violations caught on camera

An experiment involving a video recording of a basketball game requires viewers to keep count of the number of passes by people wearing white shirts. At one point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera, thumps its chest and leaves.

Scientists noted that half the people watching the video and counting the passes missed the gorilla, which spent just nine seconds on screen. It was as though the gorilla were invisible. This phenomenon is well known to researchers who study eyewitness testimony. People sometimes see what they want to see or they reconstruct in their mind’s eye what they think they have seen.

In addition, post-event information can alter an eyewitness’s memory of an event and of the people involved. Yet eyewitnesses are generally unaware that their memory of, for example, a crime has been altered by post-event information. Moreover, once an eyewitness memory is altered, it is difficult if not impossible to restore the original.

In the context of political conflict and civil unrest, a potential solution to this dilemma is offered by a new technology called EyeWitness, the result of collaboration between the International Bar Association and the legal services division of the information firm LexisNexis.

EyeWitness is designed to take photos, videos and audio recordings in a simple and secure way. It looks like any photo app, but it has a secure mode which means that if the phone is examined by security officials they will not see any of the material recorded.

EyewitnessIn dangerous places around the world, where soldiers or police or unidentified people may be committing human rights abuses, mobile devices have become important tools. In the hands of campaigners and witnesses of abuse, it can provide valuable evidence of a crime.

EyeWitness stamps recordings with GPS coordinates, time, location and other data showing exactly where it was recorded and whether it has been edited. When the user is in a safe location, he or she can upload the material to a secure database owned by the EyeWitness project. There is also an option for the recordings to be deleted once sent – to protect witnesses whose phones might later be seized and examined by hostile forces. The software includes a “panic button” allowing users to erase all recorded information as well as the app itself.

The app is intended for human rights campaigners, investigators, and both traditional and citizen journalists. It is designed specifically for conflict zones, although a further immediate use would be in the context of civil campaigns, the unwarranted use of force by police, and even home security.

One of the problems of presenting videos as evidence in court has been ensuring they are proof against claims that they have been falsified or digitally altered. As well as providing “a trusted chain of custody record”, EyeWitness records the exact number of pixels in order to demonstrate that images have not been digitally manipulated.

Seeing is not necessarily believing. But given the first-hand evidence of a verifiable and validated recording, legitimate doubts and concerns could be more easily resolved. And given the importance of hand-held technologies to communicating today’s unpredictable and often dangerous world, EyeWitness seems to have a future.

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