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Citizens’ Images of Potential War Crimes in Ukraine Flood the Internet, but Might Not Hold Up in Court

WSJ – Open-source data offers a trove of possible evidence, but it is untested at the International Criminal Court – “Each morning as he sips his coffee, Giancarlo Fiorella opens Telegram, a social-media app popular in Ukraine, and starts scanning for videos of potential war crimes—attacks on schools, or use of cluster munitions. When he finds something, he goes through a lengthy process to verify that the video is real. A single clip usually takes about an hour. Then he begins the process over again. “There are tons and tons of images coming out every single day,” said Mr. Fiorella, an analyst for Bellingcat, an open-source investigative organization. Open sources, like videos on social media, have become an essential part of the effort to document war crimes in Ukraine. Satellite images show the aftermath of bombings to anyone who wants to look. Images and videos depicting what appear to be violations of international law are popping up online faster than during any previous conflict. Data drawn from a variety of public sources can be triangulated to track the movement of Russian military units. Although hundreds of professional investigators—from the Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office, the International Criminal Court, and several other European countries—are at work on the ground, they can’t keep up with the flood of material. As a result, much of the work of capturing evidence is now falling to amateurs. Nonprofit groups are photographing bomb sites and interviewing victims. The Ukrainian government has created a website where witnesses can send in evidence; it has received thousands of submissions. And a phalanx of volunteers is combing the internet for photos and videos of potential war crimes and preserving the posts in case they are later deleted…

But data from open sources is untested at the ICC, and it has been tossed out by national courts in some cases. While satellite images have been used at trials for decades, the person who recorded a video traditionally needs to testify to its authenticity in court. With many videos posted online, the authors are unknown. A number of efforts to professionalize the collection of open-source data are under way. The Ukrainian government has released an app for citizens with a chatbot that advises how to record reliable video, including capturing the surrounding area on screen so it can be more easily verified later. In 2020, Lindsay Freeman, law and policy director for the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, helped draft what became known as the Berkeley Protocol, a set of principles for handling digital media so it could be used in court. Bellingcat has developed a methodology its investigators say is consistent with the protocol: Investigators take several steps—including using virtual private networks (VPNs) and clearing browsing data—to minimize algorithmic bias and ensure the security of their investigators. It is a slow, painstaking process that logs each step investigators take…”

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