Image reprinted under Creative Commons, courtesy of lourdesmunozsantamaria.

From YouTube to FTP, and Dropbox to Google Drive, online services have very different ways of transferring files. Which ones are safest for your videos? 

Co-written with Jennifer McLean. 

Digital video is wonderfully mobile, and can easily make its way from an activist’s camera to someone on the other side of the world in minutes.  Activists, like most people, commonly use commercial online platforms and file sharing services to move their video files.  With human rights documentation, however, the stakes can be much higher if the video is damaged, deleted, or altered along the way. Human rights videos need to be handled carefully throughout their lifecycle to protect their authenticity, integrity, and usability as evidence.

Video files can be easily lost, corrupted, or altered when transferred from one location to another. Different online services handle files differently, potentially affecting your ability to access and share the video, and the video’s viability as evidence.

So what features should you look for, and which websites and services have them? Here is a list of the key factors to consider when making this decision, followed by a comparison of popular file sharing services.

Issues to consider when selecting an online file sharing service:

  • Permanence – Since you may need to download the file at some point after you’ve uploaded it, the system should not remove or delete your videos without your authorization, or at least without adequate advance notice.
  • Data Integrity – The system should keep (and enable you to download) an exact copy of what you uploaded, without alteration, data loss, or corruption.
  • Security – The system should not be vulnerable to unauthorized access. In cases where you have sensitive information, choose a system that allows you to encrypt or limit access to selected files.
  • Chain of Custody – The system should monitor and log activities that affect the video (e.g. who uploaded and when, who accessed and when, who edited and when, etc).
  • Documentation – If you have accompanying metadata that is separate from your video—such as consent forms or shot lists—choose a system that allows you to keep it associated with the video.
  • Accessibility – The system should enable you to access and download your videos at any point.
  • Upload/Download Efficiency – The system’s method for uploading and downloading should be quick and user-friendly.
  • Cost – You must be able to afford the system’s cost to upload and download videos in the volume and frequency that you need.

Remember also that safe services do not necessarily hold safe files; any download from an untrusted source may contain malware that can harm your computer, and access your personal information. Finally, some of these services sync files to your local computer; as such, these files would be visible and vulnerable if the computer is stolen or hacked.

Comparison of Popular File Sharing Services

Be aware that technologies and terms of use change frequently, so check for the most updated information before making a decision.

Photo Courtesy of Casual Chin under Creative Commons Licensing.

YouTube is the top player in the video scene for several reasons: it’s completely free, is well designed for viewing, and it has user-friendly privacy settings. However, YouTube is not meant for transferring files or file sharing. It does not keep your original uploaded file, and your content is at risk of being removed if it violates YouTube’s Community Guidelines.

  • Permanence: YouTube can remove videos at any time without notice, especially if the content is graphic. YouTube weighs the amount and quality of information in the title and description when deciding whether or not to remove an item, so always include basic information about your video.
  • Data Integrity: Uploaded video files are not retained in their original format. Only transcoded copy can be downloaded.
  • Security: YouTube is designed for viewing access, but there are options for setting “private,” “unlisted,” and “public” videos.
  • Chain of Custody: Accessible data includes date uploaded, date published, date updated, YouTube user ID.
  • Documentation: Uploader can add metadata in title, description, and tag fields. Some metadata embedded in original file is lost.
  • Accessibility: Downloading copies of videos that are not your own or that do not have a YouTube download link violates YouTube Terms of Service.
  • Efficiency: Uploader is able to resume interrupted uploads.
  • Cost: No cost.

Photo courtesy of Dekuma under Creative Commons Licensing

Dropbox stores files of any type in an online platform, and offers a desktop application to sync these files to your local computer. It keeps files and metadata intact, and enables easy uploading, downloading, and sharing of content. It is allows easy access to files from multiple devices.

  • Permanence: Dropbox will generally not remove your files, but can terminate accounts with advance notice. It is possible to restore accidentally deleted files for 30 days, or longer with the Packrat feature.
  • Data Integrity: Files can be transferred intact. You can also restore deleted files.
  • Security: Dropbox Transfer uses SSL, and files are encrypted on server. Encrypted files can be uploaded owner controls sharing for each file, but there is no read-only option. There is a 2-step verification option. Desktop and mobile application may be of a problem if computer is taken/attacked.
  • Chain of Custody: Users can access Dropbox Events, which keeps track of actions on files, who did them, and when.
  • Documentation: Documentation can be uploaded like any other file.
  • Accessibility: Files can be downloaded and shared at any time.
  • Efficiency: With desktop app, folders can be synced across multiple devices.
  • Cost: No cost for access. Free accounts come with limited storage. Paid subscriptions come with more storage.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Serfass under Creative Commons Licensing

Skype is primarily used for conversation; files can be transferred between users, but they are not stored by Skype. Skype is sensitive to Internet speed and disruption, and both parties must be online to restart an interrupted transfer.

  • Permanence: Skype only transfers files; it does not store them.
  • Data Integrity: Files are transferred intact.
  • Security: Skype transfers are encrypted, but any conversation can be retrieved through locally saved history, which may be a security issue. Exchanges can be hidden but they won’t be deleted until you actually clear your history.
  • Chain of Custody: Transfer is recorded in Skype conversation history. The log (a .db file) is stored on users’ computer.
  • Documentation: Documentation files can be transferred, or metadata can be given as part of Skype conversation and saved.
  • Accessibility: Skype does not store files, so they cannot be accessed later. Recipient must save file locally at time of transfer.
  • Efficiency: Potentially slow transfer depending on connection. Interrupted transfers can be resumed, but both parties have to be online at the same time.
  • Cost: No cost 

Photo courtesy of josephscott under Creative Commons Licensing

Gmail/Google Drive: Similar to Dropbox, Google Drive is a popular tool to upload, store, and share files with others. It is cost-free and its revision history feature helps users keep track of changes to files. Its desktop application syncs files to the local computer.

  • Permanence: Google generally will not remove your files, but can terminate accounts. Files that are deleted by the owner cannot be recovered.
  • Data Integrity: Files are transferred intact.
  • Security: Google transfer uses HTTPS/TLS. Google does not encrypt files on server, but encrypted files can be uploaded. Owner can control read/write/ download access to files. There is a 2-step verification option.
  • Chain of Custody: Revision history shows when a file was uploaded and by whom.
  • Documentation: Documentation can be uploaded as a separate file, or can be created in Google Docs or a Gmail message.
  • Accessibility: Files can be downloaded at any time. Google Takeout facilitates batch downloads.
  • Efficiency: With desktop app, folders can be synced across multiple devices. Users can add files to Google Drive directly from Gmail.
  • Cost: Free.

Photo courtesy of Ujwala Prabhu under Creative Commons Licensing

Internet Archive: The Internet Archive is a digital library that allows the public to upload, download, and access files at no cost. There is no privacy, though—all files are accessible to all users. 

  • Permanence: Internet Archive will not remove your files unless they receive a valid request from a rightsholder. It can terminate accounts at any time, upon written notice.
  • Data Integrity: Files are transferred intact. Hashes/ checksums are computed and saved in an accessible text file.
  • Security: Anything uploaded can be viewed, accessed, and downloaded by anyone.Encrypted files can be uploaded, but anyone can access and download them.
  • Chain of Custody: Accessible data includes date added, uploader, dates updated, checksums for all files.
  • Documentation: Documentation can be uploaded with the video.
  • Accessibility: Files can be downloaded at any time.
  • Efficiency: Uploader is able to resume interrupted uploads.
  • Cost: Free.


File Transfer Protocol: FTP is a network protocol for transferring files between two points over the Internet.  Users can upload and download files from an FTP server (your own or a hosted service) using an FTP client application. However, FTP lacks security, putting the information shared at risk if the file transfer is intercepted.

  • Permanence: FTP is just a way of transferring files, so permanence depends on who is hosting your FTP server.
  • Data Integrity: Files can be transferred intact.
  • Security: FTP is generally unencrypted and not secure.
  • Chain of Custody: Depending on the software, users may be able to create log of transfers.
  • Documentation: Documentation files can be transferred with video files.
  • Accessibility: Files can be downloaded at any time.
  • Efficiency: FTP is able to resume interrupted uploads.
  • Cost: No-cost FTP software is available, but there may be costs associated with running  or using a server to host and provide the files.

Yvonne Ng is the Archivist at WITNESS, where she manages a collection of over 5000 human rights videos shot by our partners around the world. 

Jennifer McLean is a communications intern at WITNESS. She has a background in international politics and human rights, and studied at London City University.

2 thoughts on “Sending Videos Safely through the Wild, Wild, Web

  1. Hi Chris
    Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found the post useful. I haven’t tried BitTorrent Sync, but am now curious to play around with it. It seems like it might be a good option in terms of privacy/security and efficient for moving large files and batch transfers. Also since it is peer to peer, you don’t need to rely on a commercial third-party. Do you have any experience using it yourself? Would love you hear how it’s worked for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *