Next week several WITNESS team members will be speaking at and participating in RightsCon, organized by our allies at Access. It gathers human rights experts, technologists, entrepreneurs and business leaders to “advance solutions to human rights challenges by concentrating on possibilities within the technology sector.”

I spoke with Sam Gregory our Program Director about why we are attending.

Q: Why is RightsCon important, and why is it important that WITNESS is there?

Gregory_SamSam: WITNESS operates at the intersection of technology, the visual media and human rights. The tools that an ever-growing number of citizen witnesses and human rights activists use to gather and share their stories are often either the commercial tools like Facebook and YouTube, or the open-source alternatives developed in activist tech communities, and often rely on access to the Internet and mobile communications. With our work we put a heavy emphasis on engaging with the commercial sector that builds the platforms that millions use, so that we can push for changes that will make their products more human rights usage-friendly, and more human rights value-positive.

RightsCon is a key gathering of NGOs, activists, independent technologists and the commercial sector where many of the issues of concern to use are being discussed – from privacy and surveillance, to how the value of human rights documentation can be maximized, to operational security for high-risk individuals.

Q: What differentiates it from other conferences that focus on the intersection of  technology and human rights? Is it the combination of different stakeholders all coming together?

Sam: There are few other opportunities explicitly focused on the intersection of human rights and technology. Other places like the Internet Governance Forum, and the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference, among others, address the NGO and civil society concerns about Internet freedom and privacy; and there are commercial conferences that touch on issues like privacy like the Mobile World Conference. But this is the only conference directly and concretely addressing this intersection and trying to get stakeholders in the room.

Q. What will you and other WITNESS staff members be discussing at RightsCon this year?

Sam: We’re looking forward to the discussion across a range of areas here. We’ll be supporting the continued outreach around our work with the Guardian Project on InformaCam, an open-source approach to creating more easily verifiable media that can be securely shared, as well as promoting how functionalities like InformaCam and its underlying J3M (pronounced “gem”) metadata approach could be incorporated as ‘eye witness’ modes in commercial video and photo sharing platforms or camera apps.

Alongside that we’ll be continuing to look at how human rights activists can be best supported when they share footage on platforms like YouTube and Facebook – including how are they protected from arbitrary takedowns of their content and how can they be best supported with options for anonymity and visual anonymity; and we’ll be following closely the discussions on how human rights mechanisms and investigators can maximize the value of citizen footage as a tool for documentation and evidence.

[pullquote]With the volume of human rights footage out there now (including an excess of half a million videos from Syria) we need better ways to help sort and make sense of this footage, while supporting and protecting an ever increasing number and diversity of creators and sharers. – Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS[/pullquote]

Q. As mentioned above, we’ll be demoing InformaCam, the mobile app we’ve developed to better authenticate citizen video. Underlying the application is the J3M metadata standard that we’d like to see adopted by more technology platforms. How do you see gatherings like this helping in those efforts?

Sam: With the volume of human rights footage out there now (including an excess of half a million videos from Syria) we need better ways to help sort and make sense of this footage, while supporting and protecting an ever increasing number and diversity of creators and sharers. We have been looking for solutions at multiple stages of this process – from pushing for visual anonymity tools like blurring on YouTube to protect vulnerable people, to identifying ways people can add metadata at point of capture so that their footage is more easily authenticable, to providing easier guidance on how to manage media (our new Activists’ Guide to Archiving) and modeling curation approaches for media on the Human Rights Channel on YouTube.

At RightsCon we’ll be particularly focused on the promotion of ‘eye witness’ functionalities at a broad scale – opt-in alternatives that allow someone to choose to add rich and verified metadata to their images or video because they need to prove that twister they saw was real, that their insurance claim is true, or that that was indeed a war crime they witnessed. We’ll be using our “Metadata for Good?” session (Mon, Mar 4, 5-6:15pm) to put out some thought-provoking ideas about how we balance control and privacy with applications like InformaCam, and other potential ‘eye-witness’ modes that could be developed from it, or modeled on it.

We hope that both activists and technologists will engage on how we can make a better, more authenticable and trustworthy option to witness a concrete reality on the devices, tools and platforms we all use.

Q: What would a successful RightsCon look like for WITNESS? What are our top goals for the conference?

Sam: Most importantly we want to advance the discussion around authentication and metadata and engage others to join us on the push for ‘witnessing’ functionalities. Alongside that we want to engage technology companies and our peers on the issues of concern to grassroots activists and citizen witnesses – around protection, visual anonymity, and arbitrary takedowns of content. Finally, of course, we’ll look to make new allies in finding the best ways to support the ever-growing number of people turning to the tools of modern visual communication to do it safely, ethically and effectively and to be on-top of what comes next, from livestreaming approaches to new wearable communication tools and emergent platforms.

Follow and connect with Sam @SamGregory. The RightsCon agenda is available here.

Other staff attending RightsCon are our executive director Yvette Alberdingk Thijm @yvettethijm. She’ll be co-facilitating a wrap up of Day 1, Mar. 3 with Andrew McLaughlin at 6:15pm. Digital Lead Michael Cervieri @bMunch, Kelly Matheson, Senior Program Manager and Morgan Hardgrave, Program Coordinator for Systems Change. 

Also, follow our partners at The Guardian Project at @guardianproject  and #RightsCon for conversation from and about the event. 

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