The same information that journalists and judges use to verify a human rights video is  what repressive regimes use to identify and target activists. How can video activists stay credible and safe? …with InformaCam.

Co-written with Matisse Bustos Hawkes.

InformaCam is an Android app that allows you to take more verifiable videos, more safely.
InformaCam is an Android app that allows you to take more verifiable videos, more safely.

InformaCam, a joint project of WITNESS and the Guardian Project, won the prestigious Knight News Challenge two weeks ago, today. The award recognizes “breakthrough ideas in news and information,” and it couldn’t be a better fit.

InformaCam is the first app designed to help people—be they activists, journalists, or parties to a fender-bender—to prove that their videos are real. InformaCam creates a ‘digital fingerprint’ for mobile video and photo files: enough metadata (information such as GPS location, and exact time the file was created) can help prove that the video was taken when and where it says it was taken. And the app uses cutting-edge encryption to help those who are documenting human rights violations stay safe. Read more on how InformaCam works here.

Two of the main people behind InformaCam—project lead Bryan Nuñez of WITNESS, and developer Harlo Holmes of the Guardian Project—recently sat down with Matisse Bustos Hawkes of WITNESS to answer questions about our project and recent win. You can watch the entire video, or browse their answers below.

Who is going to use InformaCam? 

“It started out as a human rights tool, but the core user could be anyone.”

The tool was originally designed for human rights defenders trying to document events securely and verifiably. But these features could be valuable for a wide range of users, including journalists, evidence collectors, and normal citizens making insurance claims.

Watch the full answer below:

How do you help ‘accidental witnesses,’ those who don’t know they’re about to document a human rights violation, and don’t have the app installed?

“We build apps and we love them and we use them—but the last few years have shown that apps are disposable.”

Apps come and go, but standards have staying power. InformaCam is an effort to reinforce the J3M meta-data standard (pronounced “gem”). By bringing that standard to the mainstream, we’re encouraging other app builders and tech companies to incorporate it. The app was also designed with ‘building blocks’ that can be assembled into new apps as the world evolves and we see new needs.

Watch the full answer below:

How do you balance ease of use with the need for security?

“We’re building it for a pretty dangerous threat model, so we’re using pretty high standards of encryption and authentication, both on the application itself and how the application communicates with the server.”

We’re building InformaCam for dangerous situations, so security features are non-negotiable. Given that, making the app easy to use is all about making the mechanisms as transparent as possible, hopefully to the point where they disappear. Ideally, InformaCam will encourage other tech organizations to adopt these standards. Having this security ‘baked into’ other video technology—like smartphones, cameras, and YouTube—would make video verification far easier for millions of users.

Watch the full answer below:

What are some examples for how people might use this? Can this app put people at further risk?

“If someone is trying to intercept a transmission from InformaCam…they would see traffic, but they wouldn’t be able to tell what it was.”

In situations like Syria, where the government may be monitoring all incoming and outgoing internet traffic, the app uses TOR to hide the traffic in the first place, and encrypts all data on the device and during transmission. Furthermore, a colleague of Harlo’s used ObscuraCam (a sibling project of InformaCam) to film a protest in Tunisia, and easily protected the identities of everyone filmed.

Watch the full answer below:

How would these videos stand up in court? Could someone use InformaCam to “prove” fake or staged incidents?

“We’re creating less work for human rights defenders and legal investigators, and creating more work for people who want to fake that same data.”

InformaCam partnered with the International Bar Association to build in the best possible verification information. Furthermore, the embedded metadata is so expansive that it could provide information to detect fakes; imposters would need to be aware of dozens of factors to fake something successfully. They would need to account for “things you didn’t have to worry about when you were faking the moon landing,” Bryan quips.

However, there’s no way to guarantee that extremely adept regimes could use InformaCam to make staged events seem more real. There are always ‘analog holes,’ which are basic methods to ‘hack’ privacy safeguards. InformaCam “does not at all obviate the need to actually go in and perform the proper due diligence and verification when lives are on the line,” says Harlo.

Watch the full answer below:


Stay tuned to the blog throughout 2013 as we report on how the Knight News Challenge grant is being used to support development, testing, and feedback loops on the app. Our team is currently identifying domestic and international test scenarios, and we’d love your ideas.

Kim Howell is the Online Communications Coordinator, and she manages the blog. Find her at @Kimplicate.

Matisse Bustos Hawkes is the Communications Manager at WITNESS. She manages media relations for the organization and publishes the blog. Follow her at @MatisseBH.

Bryan Nunez is the Technology Manager at WITNESS. He oversees the development of projects like SecureSmartCam (including InformaCam and ObscuraCam), alongside partners at the Guardian Project.

Harlo Holmes is a media scholar, software programmer, and activist.  As research fellow with the Guardian Project, she primarily investigates topics in digital media steganography, metadata, and the standards surrounding technology in the social sciences.

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