Earlier this week amateur cellphone video surfaced corroborating that casualties suffered in the August 22 US airstrike on the Afghan village of Azizabad were much higher than the military has been willing to admit. The Times published a piece by Carlotta Gall “Evidence Points to Civilian Toll in Afghan Raid,” which also includes a link to some of the video (edited due to graphic content). Investigations by the UN, human rights and intelligence officials, and the Afghan government had already backed up villagers’ accounts citing about 90 civilians killed, while the military continued to insist on a figure of only 5 to 7 civilian casualties, plus 35 militants. As of Sunday, the Pentagon has said it will reopen the investigation. Also this week, the NYPD announced that 911 and 311 will now accept photos and cellphone videos as evidence of crimes and quality-of-life violations.
So it’s pretty much everywhere now. Leaving aside, for now, the many societal questions this raises, what does it mean in archival terms? Last spring I was contacted by Michelle Caswell, an MLIS student at the University of Wisconsin, who asked me if I would be interviewed for a paper she was writing about archiving cellphone video. I said yes – the caveat being that we haven’t actually archived any yet! – because cellphones or other mobile devices will increasingly be the means for documenting human rights abuses. And the Hub is one place where these will be aggregated and disseminated – examples here.
Michelle wrote a fine paper; her other main resource was the September 11 Digital Archive, which is a amazing project. She will hopefully publish it in the near future, at which point I will post a link or citation. In the meantime, with her permission, I’m going to post our Q&A, because I want to generate discussion of these issues, and document our process of grappling with them. Thanks, Michelle, for tackling this topic.
Q: In which ways do cell images and footage arrive to you? Are people uploading them onto The Hub site already? Can you give example of cell phone images you have already received?
A: There is not that much cell phone video on the Hub – yet. What’s there has been embedded from other online sources, not uploaded directly. The functionality for direct upload to the Hub from a phone will be added within the next few months, and is likely to increase cell phone submissions substantially. To date such video is either downloaded to a computer, then uploaded, or embedded from another site. At present all such video is ‘archived’, as it were, on the Hub itself. To take the next step we will need not only to ingest the video into our own system, but to properly catalog the content and contextualize the information in a way that will ensure future access and meaning.
Q: How do cell phones allow people to capture images they might otherwise not be
able to capture? Can regimes stop the transfer of these images in the same way they can limit internet access?
A: Cell phones being small and easy to hide, ubiquitous, and existing primarily for other purposes, can be carried at almost all times, used surreptitiously, and therefore have more chance of being deployed in unpredicted, high-risk or chaotic situations.
Yes, regimes can directly block access. Cell phone networks can be blocked or disrupted using various methods; SMS was shut down in Ethiopia in 2005 after contested elections there; and of course, as in Burma, individuals possessing phones can be targeted.
For an analysis of the Burma shutdown, you might want to look at a report by The Open Net Initiative, Pulling the Plug: A Technical Review of the Internet Shutdown in Burma.
Q: In your opinion, how are these images and footage of enduring value? Do you think they could provide evidential value in a human rights legal case? Might they increase public awareness of issues?
A: Absolutely, such footage can have both evidentiary and public awareness value. As far as enduring value, while we’ll need to be selective about what we archive, it’s essential that we take the responsibility to preserve this media. First, cell phone video may be the only documentation of a crime, abuse, or event. Second, in some cases the cell-phone video may be the catalyst for ensuing events, and as such is essential as part of a story. Third, it is part of the ongoing story and record of human rights advocacy itself.
The downside is that the image quality is so inferior to that produced by even consumer cameras.
Q: How do you ensure the authenticity of these images? Can you?
A: Ultimately, not all such videos can be authenticated. In some cases the source is known, not anonymous; in others, the phone number will available as part of the uploaded metadata. It may happen in the future that unauthenticated or questionable content is published in an ‘unverified’ space or context. Corroboration is also important.
This points up just how crucial it is for users and contributors to submit sufficient metadata. If we have the date, location, the facts and context about what we are seeing, and – when security is not an issue – who shot or created it, there is a much better chance of verifying or corroborating its authenticity.
Q: Do you think cell phone-generated images have the power to transform human rights documentation? If so, how? How is your work on this issue an extension of the work Witness has already been doing?
A: I do. There is no question that the ability to instantly and globally document and distribute information – by theoretically anyone – is potentially transformative. WITNESS works in a number of ways to promote video advocacy, not least of which are training and sustained collaborations. At the same time the mission has always been predicated on breaking down barriers of access to technology and distribution modes. But really all of these things are part of a larger framework of tools which are used in concert – images, traditional research and documentation, jurisprudence, statistical analysis – to promote and defend human rights.
Q: What are the challenges in archiving cell phone-generated materials moving forward?
A: I’d say there are two major challenges:
1. Creating the understanding that it is something we need to do – both within the archive community as well as in the advocacy world. In the archival world it may seem like so much ephemera; in the advocacy context there is often a difficulty in thinking beyond the immediate present, because of the urgency to take action, prevent abuse or create change.
2. Acquiring sufficient metadata. The biggest misconception people can have
is that images speak for themselves – they don’t. Factual data is imperative to root images in truth and give them context. What date did an event occur, where, by whom, to whom, why, who documented the events and what was their motivation? Lack of metadata may actually be a bigger authenticity problem than fakery. Think of riot footage shot recently in Kenya. The images may be dramatic but without knowing the facts what is the long-term value as documentation? And how can you authenticate?
Q: Do you think cell phone technology could have a wide-ranging impact on archives? If so, how?
A: It is one technology having an impact on archives, and with which we haven’t grappled sufficiently. The sheer magnitude of electronic communications and record-keeping, not only the tools with which we communicate, collaborate, and document, but the ensuing changes in behavior, and the rapidity with which technology evolves, demand new strategies and creative thinking.