Safe Documentation of Atrocity Evidence


The problem to be solved is to provide a method of documenting evidence of an atrocity without endangering the person(s) gathering the evidence.
No single solution solves all aspects of the problem, which can be served by implementation of steps at the Local, Investigator, and Satellite levels. Solutions at each level that are currently available or close to market are discussed. Local level solutions are provided for cell phones (near term) and smartphones (within 5 years), with emphasis on security of the user. Organizations interested in the problem are urged to spearhead a smartphone donation drive to accelerate current trends of worldwide distribution. Tools are or can soon be available to investigators to gather observational and physical evidence of atrocities. Satellites are currently in use for determining the ‘normal’ situation in all inhabited areas, and for analyzing changes for evidence of atrocities. The Solution seeks to expand coordination with Investigators to ensure secure transmission of evidence. Key components are development of a handheld device for documenting and mapping 3D surfaces such as craters and bullet holes, and recent availability of small drones for video and evidence collection.

Local Level

The people most likely to be victimized by atrocities are usually those with the fewest resources for self-defense. Tools in hand may be few and relatively low-tech. Tools provided to them by NGOs must be cheap and readily available. Cell phones are in the hands of many people worldwide, and in the hands of some if not all within a given village. Rather than provide communication for every person, the goal is to ensure at least one of any potential victimized group is supplied. Note that not all atrocities are one-sided, and evidence must be available from as many participants as possible. The safest tool for the user is passive use and location, which can be monitored for unusual patterns.

The use of cell phones is increasing worldwide. Analysys International estimated that there were 450 million Chinese mobile Web users as of July, 2012 [1]. The Communications Commission of Kenya reported 29.7 million cell phone subscribers in that country [2]. There are several available sources (e.g., mobiThinking [3]) for statistics on worldwide mobile phone and app use for the Seeker to evaluate efficacy of cell phone-based efforts.

Cell phones have been used for surveillance of diseases. The CDC published an example, that of veterinarians in the Sri Lankan Infectious Disease Surveillance and Analysis System [4]. Interactive R&D, a partner of the Stop TB Partnership, published a report on the use of mobile phone networks to deliver health information and care [5]. They report that greater than 75% of the world population have cell phone subscriptions with network coverage available to 80% of the rural population and 90% of the total population. One similar cell phone project in Africa mapped the incidence of malaria [6]. Another, a smartphone app called WinSenga, uses a microphone to detect a fetal heartbeat [7]. If cell phones are not yet sufficient for reporting atrocities, the barriers are receding. One optimistic reporter believes most Africans will have smartphones within 5 years [8].

Human rights organizations are urged to spearhead a campaign to collect donated smartphones. Earlier generations of smartphones are already being replaced by upgraded offerings. Programs are operated for profit (e.g., uSell [9]) and nonprofit (e.g., Dell [10]) donations. Organizations can partner with existing collections or begin a separate collection. The goal is to accelerate getting additional smartphones into the hands of those most at risk and most likely to benefit from passive data collection.

There are passive and active methods of data collection. Cell phones can actively be used to take photos and videos as well as send text messages. Cells can also be used passively as GPS locators, where the user does not need active intervention. This latter may be safer since no incriminating evidence resides in the phone. Simpler (not ‘smart’) phones may need to be located using triangulation, which works only if the phone is on. During an incident, confusion and violence may prevent any usage that requires typing or key manipulation. Ideal of course is a phone that uploads to a satellite so no evidence ever resides in the phone. This is not feasible at the Local level but is considered below at the Investigator level.

Smartphones can proactively map out a region where the owner resides. Changes can be monitored and reported by apps such as one recently released for the iPhone designed for hunters [11]. App programmers for adapting the hunting program are readily available [12].

Separately, there is a need for cell phone concealment for later retrieval. This may be a hard case that the user can bury quickly for later retrieval by GPS. One example is a fake rock as used to hide house keys [13] but large enough to accommodate cell phones. A phone in a camouflaged hard cover can be jammed into the ground quickly. A model here is the ice chisel, a metal wedge in a long handle. The forged iron wedge of the chisel needs to accommodate a phone, while the handle needs to be detached once the phone is jammed into the ground. Smartphones can later be retrieved using GPS.

Can cell phones be hidden for safety? The FBI is concerned about cell phones being smuggled and hidden in prisons [14]. Prisoners hide phones and the removed SIM cards in books, mattresses, or clothing. An incomplete list of hiding places can be found in a 2009 AP article by Don Thompson [15]. Prisons are responding by using dogs trained to detect wireless devices [16]. The back-and-forth between prisoners and guards will doubtless continue. Yet the FBI may aid in divulging methods of concealment that might be used by populations in areas prone to atrocities. Many such potential victims are in circumstances similar to prisoners.

Unlike prisoners who are suspected of using contraband cell phones to coordinate further criminal activity, the cell phones under consideration here may best be used in a passive sense. That is, their continued transmission is considered a normal situation. An interruption or sudden dispersal of a cluster of phones, as monitored by GPS, may indicate a large-scale atrocity.

Investigator Level

After an alleged atrocity, NGO humanitarian workers and journalists attempt to approach the area to gather and store evidence. Tools for this level may be more sophisticated than those of the Local Level, and need not be available in such large numbers. Smartphones are obvious favorites, but privacy and security concerns point towards satellite phones instead. Implementing the Tor Project and InTheClear for security may be feasible at this stage.

One topic under discussion in a prison situation is the use of jamming. Prisons seek permission to jam transmissions, except it is illegal and it often disrupts transmissions outside the prison. Governments and groups that perpetrate atrocities have no such scruples. Assuming the presence of jamming, how can evidence gathering and witnessing be performed and transmitted? With a large budget, the satellite phone can solve the problem. Reporters and journalists use satellite phones to communicate and report on events in war zones and disaster areas. One option is to respond to alleged atrocities with agents equipped with satellite phones. This requires fewer phones needed for special manufacture or modification. These follow-up phones can then be equipped with the Guardian Project’s InTheClear to cease functioning if the device is ever confiscated. All data are uploaded immediately rather than stored on the phone.

The Fraden Corp. has a patent [17] for turning smartphones into thermometers. Such a modified smartphone can be supplied to investigators. This can be used to demonstrate evidence of fire or other heat-generating destruction with a GPS and time stamp.

The Guardian Project [18] seeks to develop mobile phone apps to provide secure and private connections. UN Election monitoring teams distribute low cost Guardian phones (tied into a crisis mapping platform such as Ushahidi [19]) to community organizations to report on issues. The Ushahidi platform emerged from the Kenyan 2008 election. One Guardian project is ObscuraCam: Secure Smart Camera, a secure camera app that can obscure, encrypt or destroy pixels within an image. This project is in partnership with, a human rights video advocacy and training organization.

YouTube also has a feature by which one may upload and pixilate faces to prevent identification by oppressive regimes [20]. This allows gathering of evidence and interviews to remain anonymous and avoid endangerment of witnesses. Use of tools from the Tor Project allows users to remain anonymous as well as to avoid regime-imposed firewalls and censorship. Many of these software tools require an amount of sophistication not geared to the standard cell phone user in rural areas.

Another Guardian Project offering is InTheClear, a suite of mobile applications designed to keep users safer in difficult situations by using their phone’s built-in tools. At its core are two main features: Emergency SMS and Data Wipe. At installation, InTheClear walks a new user through the process of configuring each of these features. The user can then activate either Emergency SMS or Data Wipe individually, on an ad-hoc basis. In addition, they can simultaneously activate both Emergency SMS and Data Wipe via “Panic!” a simple, one-touch feature of InTheClear.

Physical evidence such as dimensions of craters, bullet holes, etc., can be measured using the projector/camera system of Song Zhang (2005 doctoral thesis [21]). Dr. Zhang developed a high-resolution, real-time 3D shape measurement system and several novel algorithms for analysis and mapping of the surface. The system requires a projector and a camera [22]. While the cell phone supplies the camera, projectors are now pocket-sized devices.

After the impact area has been measured, then the investigator will want to collect any munitions fragments – and airlift them out immediately with a drone. Small drones are becoming affordable to police departments, and should be within the means of NGOs. Range of activity is limited, 3 miles in proposal by Johns Hopkins’ APL (Rodriguez et al, 2006). A complete system with a range up to 30 miles from Marcus UAV is less than $10,000 [23]. Recently, the World Wide Fund for Nature announced it used UAVs in Nepal to aid conservation efforts. The UAVs cost $2500 each and fly 20 km routes [24]. In summary, the use of drones by reporters from a moderate distance is becoming a reality. The cost as well as weather limits the blanket use of UAVs in the near term to sites specifically identified as atrocity sites. The drone used to airlift physical evidence may be a heavier duty UAV than that used for video surveillance only, and sent in only if the area is secure.

Cell phones can record location, audio/visual, and typed messages but do not perform direct sample analysis. They cannot diagnose disease and cannot directly provide forensic evidence. This, however, may be done using DNA sequencing-based identification. NIST maintains a database of human DNA short tandem repeats (STRs) that may differ between unrelated humans but remain constant between close relations [25]. The FBI uses a set of 13 STRs called CODIS while Europeans use other sets. Collection of samples to identify worldwide perpetrators, however, may be problematic if they are well armed or operate from a distance such as helicopter gunships. Victims can at least be identified or linked to close relatives. Sample collection can be as simple as wiping an area with a piece of filter paper. Samples can be collected and flown out of the area using drones discussed above. Kits for testing DNA identity are available from Beckman Coulter (Brea, CA), Biotype (Dresden, Germany), QIAGEN N.V. (Venlo, NL), Promega (Madison, WI), and Applied Biosystems (Foster City, CA).

Satellite Levels

Observation: Databases and real-time satellite imagery is currently used to monitor situations on the ground. Much of this is to define a ‘normal’ situation, then to identify unusual deviations. One example is the observance of roadwork that indicated an intention of the Sudanese army to send tanks south for attacks. This satellite level of surveillance is used to find evidence that attacks are in the initial execution stage, and search for evidence of civilian population disturbance. This can be seen by unusual military activity, sudden displacement of cell phone GPS signals, extinction of usual nighttime lights, etc.

Evidence-Gathering: During and after atrocities, signals sent from the ground need to be received for documentation and analysis. Ideally, this will include video footage and messages uploaded by victims, but this may not be possible. In most cases, it consists of receiving data from the NGOs investigating the aftermath.

A recent article [26] described language filtering by Google using Impermium’s hate speech detection [27]. This can flag likely areas where atrocities may happen next, and is similar to monitoring for terrorist cell ‘chatter.’

The Afripop project [28] seeks to map out the population of sub-Saharan Africa. Afripop uses 30m spatial resolution Landsat Enhanced Thematic Mapper (ETM) satellite imagery for mapping settlements. ComputaMaps [29] also uses satellite imagery and other technologies to produce mapping of the population database LandScan. This was created using factors such as nighttime lights of the world, weighted by frequency gain. LandScan, developed at the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory [30], is also available through East View Information Services [31]. Over time, every inhabited location will appear on a satellite heat map. Changes such as increase due to fires, decrease due to deaths, and loss of heat generation, can be flagged as potential sites to be investigated.

The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP, [32]) has several documentations of atrocities on their website. In one case [33], a satellite image of a Sudanese town was taken on June 19, 2011. SSP was notified of a video made by the attacking police force on May 18, 2012. A follow-up artillery attack was staged on July 29. Three days later, journalists arrived to take GPS-tagged photos. Satellite images taken on September 8, 2012, were compared to the earlier image. The story itself was posted on October 16, 2012. These efforts are commendable but take too long with uncertain results.

SSP’s goal is to monitor the situation in southern Sudan, although its partnerships including DigitalGlobe can extend coverage. DigitalGlobe’s FirstLook is an online service for emergency management that provides web-based access to pre- and post-event imagery of world disasters, specifically including terrorist events and movement of refugees. High-resolution satellite imagery provides the essential information required for emergency planning, risk assessment, monitoring of staging areas and emergency response, damage assessment, and recovery. The amounts of detail and analysis are impressive. The Enough Project [34] seeks to monitor the Congo, Darfur, and other African regions including Sudan. The tools are in hand to spread a global observing presence to document the buildup and aftermath of atrocities. We hope this leads to prevention in the near future.





              [4] Robertson C, Sawford K, Daniel SLA, Nelson TA, Stephen C. “Mobile phone–based infectious disease surveillance system, Sri Lanka,” Emerg Infect Dis. Oct 2010.







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