From Syria to Charlottesville, it’s not a safe time to be a human rights defender. It’s not a safe time to be associated with the fight for human rights at all. But fighting for human rights has never been “safe.” It has always been necessary. And the dedication of activists makes it clear that even in the face of dangerous repression–from governments and from regressive people like white-supremacist protestors–the work will go on.
Although documenting human rights abuses is never totally safe, it can be safer. Activists are already using tools like ObscuraCam to blur photos and Signal to communicate. But not everyone documenting human rights abuses knows how to use these tools, or even that they exist. That’s why we’re glad to see YouTube’s improved face blur feature launch this week. It comes at a pivotal moment for the use of video for human rights, and it’s sorely needed.
Today almost everyone has incredibly powerful documentation technology at their fingertips and in their pocket, in the form of a cell phone. This has led to an explosion of human rights video. But it has also led to videos being carelessly posted online. It’s become more and more important to stick to the principle “Do no harm,” when documenting human rights abuses. This can often mean protecting the identities of targets of human rights abuses. It can also mean concealing identities of interviewees in advocacy videos.
YouTube’s blurring feature has existed since 2012. We’re proud to say we worked on the initial feature and have continued to work with YouTube since then. Blurring was initially only available as a “blur all faces” tool. The option to blur all faces didn’t always work, and it was all or nothing. We knew users needed more granularity. In 2016, we worked with YouTube to update the tool so that users could select specific areas to blur–a great improvement that allowed users to blur not only faces, but tattoos, brands, or anything else in a video. This option, called custom blur, still exists in the same form.
What’s new is how blurring faces works. This new version makes it much easier to select individual faces in a video to blur. In the old version, you could blur all faces or select specific areas to blur. In the new tool, your video is processed and all the faces detected are shown on a grid. All you have to do is click any face on the grid to blur it throughout the video.
For some, the video processing might raise a security and privacy flag, which is understandable. YouTube says that the data about faces is used only long enough to process your video. It’s not retained on their servers for longer than a matter of hours, and certainly not days.
We’ll be creating a new how-to video soon, but in the meantime, check out the screenshots below. Before you start, note that you’ll want to upload your videos as “private” in order to not accidentally make the blurred video public before it’s ready.
To get to your video manager when you are logged in to YouTube, navigate to “my channel” and then click on “video manager.” Click on the name of the video you want to blur, or upload a video to blur.
You’ll find the blurring feature by navigating to “enhancements” once you are in the video manager. The following screenshots are taken from a video where activists gave their consent to being filmed.
You can also find the blurring feature video from a video you have already uploaded, by clicking the wand icon under the video.
Once you click on enhancements you get a number of options, including “blurring effects.”
You get the option of using the existing “custom blur” tool or using the “blur faces” tool. We’ve talked about using custom blur before, and we’ll review that in our upcoming tutorial. What’s new is the way the “blur faces” tool works.
If you click on “blur faces,” your video will be processed, and you get a grid of faces you can select from. As noted above, data about your video is retained only long enough to process it.
The grid even displays what times the faces show up in the video if you hover over the face, although it doesn’t always capture continuity. For example, it might process the same face in profile and head-on as two different faces, as shown in following screenshot. To select an individual to be blurred, just click on their face in the grid, or in multiple places in the grid if necessary.
Once your video has been processed, you have the option of saving a new video and deleting the old one, or saving the changes to the existing video.
Try it out! We’ve found the tool works quite well on a surprising number of videos with a lot of faces and movement. It works better on high-definition videos, and it’s particularly easy to use in situations where there are only a few faces. That being said, it will definitely save time for anyone who needs to blur faces in a crowd, and you can also still go in after using this tool and blur anything you want with custom blur.
WITNESS has long advocated for the use of videos of human rights abuses for advocacy and evidence–when videos are used and created safely, ethically, and effectively. This features makes it easier to do that. Here are just a few real-life examples of when this tool could be used:
- On a recording of police violently attacking a community member, to blur out the individual targeted and bystanders. It can be humiliating, and even dangerous, to have your identity exposed as a bystander or target of police violence.
- On a recording of a humiliating or violent experience of hate in public, for example transphobic violence, to conceal the identity of the target of the violence. As we pointed out in our Capturing Hate report, these kinds of videos can re-traumatize individuals. In fact, sometimes videos are shared by perpetrators of violence specifically for the purpose of shaming targets of abuse.
- On a recording of a video at a demonstration, to protect the identity of individuals as you film police tactics. We’ve covered the need to protect identity extensively in our tip sheets on livestreaming and filming protests. This is even more urgent as groups like white supremacists use videos and images from protests to search for and harass activists online and offline.
- On a recording of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement action that took place in public, to conceal identities of targets and bystanders. We wrote about the need to carefully protect identity in our follow-up blog post to our webinars on Filming Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But these aren’t the only times blurring can be useful. Blurring is helpful in other everyday circumstances such as maintaining the privacy of minors when taking videos in places like a public park or blurring out brands or other sections of videos when necessary. We’d love to hear of other ways you think blurring could help.
We’re excited to see companies create and maintain tools that support human rights. We’re also working on our own tools. Keep your eyes peeled–the Guardian Project is putting the finishing touches on our new release of ObscuraCam, another way to blur faces. We hope our tools and leadership like YouTube’s blur tool will help this technology become widespread.
This is one of two articles we’re publishing on YouTube today. Please also see our post about YouTube’s recent wave of removals of videos that document human rights abuses in Syria.