Towards supporting criminal accountability

For some years, our team tracked civilian harm resulting from air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, then against more adversaries in more countries. And during these years, as I spoke with colleagues at the Syrian Archive and the IIIM Syria, who were all diligently collecting and archiving in the hope of legal proceedings some years or decades down the line, I wondered how much weight our stuff would have. Legally, I mean.

Then the large-scale invasion of Ukraine happened, and suddenly it’s a whole different world out there. The Economist famously wrote that OSINT has “come of age,” but it’s not just OSINT. Archivists and lawyers around the world have sharpened their axes, and thanks to abundant promises of funding, a wealth of folks are working on documenting the conflict and the atrocities it’s led to.

I think a couple of things will take even more shape in 2023 than they did this year, as far as new practices and sensibilities towards the legal world are being refined. Most notably, I feel there’s a newfound keenness on testifying, or at least on being part of bringing justice — and it will be shaping journalistic practices in 2023 in two notable ways.

Authenticated-at-source capture is a new USP

From a business and product point of view, I think initiatives such as the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity (C2PA, whose members include Adobe, the BBC, Intel, and Microsoft) as well as the Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI, which includes Adobe, The New York Times, and Twitter) are but precursors to a broader shift: the leap from trust in the media to trust in the material itself.

I eagerly await the large “merchants of truth,” news organizations that trade on their production of accurate records, marketing their ability to establish provenance and unbroken integrity, from capture to their client’s screen. It’s not tamper-free because Reputable Newswire says it is — you can see it for yourself, thanks to this little green checkmark, or whichever UI we come up with to denote self-authenticating cryptographic properties. Looking further ahead, Secure Enclave-type chips will permit safe and strong cryptography in professional camera bodies themselves.

In both cases, the challenge is communicating to the audience how novel and strong this self-authenticating material is in terms of trusting what they can see.

Collaborations and more comfortable links between journalists and CSOs

As if we needed more of the same debate about who’s a journalist and who’s not, I think there’ll be a more porous border between the world of OSINT analysts and newsrooms or small publishing organizations. And call me nostalgic for my days producing graphics, but I think the bridge between the two worlds is graphics and deep research — “Visual Investigations,” in New York Times parlance.

I think newsrooms will grow more and more comfortable working in partnership with shops specializing in this kind of work, and I think the result of this marriage could be very strong material for legal proceedings, in addition to being extraordinary storytelling pieces.

Pieces like the collaboration between the Associated Press and SITU, as well as fascinating projects aimed towards both the general public and an audience of prosecutors in The Hague, mixing VR and drone videos, and sharp and focused event reconstructions are the areas I see as the most productive and forming the most fruitful cross-disciplinary thinking.

Anecdotally, colleagues who’ve returned from Ukraine (as well as one for Ethiopia) all mentioned more or less casually that they’d been treating their research, notes, and B-rolls differently — as if to be more “ready” should they be called to testify in front of an international body or court. All sought advice ahead of their trip regarding best practices for documentation, and some were directed to published resources such as the Witness Video as Evidence field guide by colleagues and professional organizations.

Should my predictions be proved wrong (and thanks to Nieman Lab for not checking the scoreboard), there’s at least that.

Basile Simon is director of special projects at Stanford and USC’s Starling Lab for Data Integrity.

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