Human Rights Investigations Lab

UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center has launched the world’s first university-based open source investigations lab. The Human Rights Investigations Lab will bring attention to human rights abuses through human rights reports and journalistic projects as well as gather evidence of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for future prosecutions. We are partnering with Amnesty International through their recently launched Digital Verification Corps (which also includes the University of Essex and University of Pretoria) as well as with organizations focused on legal accountability

What is the Human Rights Investigations Lab at UC Berkeley?

Alexandra and KayaThe Human Rights Investigations Lab is training UC Berkeley students in cutting-edge, open source research methods to tackle specific, well-defined human rights and public health problems. Berkeley students are receiving training from world-class open source intelligence experts and conducting supervised research into suspected human rights violations and public health challenges with an eye toward impact and accountability.

Students carefully selected for the Lab are participating in one of five working groups, including some focused on actual legal cases. All of the students are learning how to conduct the painstaking work of verifying and authenticating hundreds of hours of video footage and photographs of human rights abuses and war crimes from around the world—including Syria, Darfur, and Yemen. Students are also using open source methods to gather evidence of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for national and international criminal courts.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-1-00-58-pmTrainers provide students with demonstrations of and practice with software, data sets, and querying tools, as well as legal processes, such as Freedom of Information Act requests. The Center is also partnering with tech companies to pilot software designed to aid with verification, geolocation, and information management.

Created with minimal startup costs, the Lab draws on the expertise of Berkeley’s diverse and multilingual faculty and students. It also relies on the skills and knowledge of journalists from organizations that have been pioneers in the field of open source investigations, including Storyful, Bellingcat, First Draft News, and Reportedly.

Our initial cohorts of Human Rights Investigations Lab Interns have included:

  • Fall 2016: 42 registered students, from 14 majors, including Computer Science, Economics, English, Environmental Economics and Policy, Global Poverty and Practice, Journalism, Jurisprudence and Social Policy, Law, Legal Studies, Master of Development Practice, Media Studies, Political Science, Sociology, and the Human Rights Minor. The students spoke 16 languages, including Arabic (Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi and Persian Gulf dialects), Bengali, Burmese, English, Farsi, French, Hindi, Hebrew, Italian, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Urdu. They came from more than a dozen countries, including Bangladesh, Burma, Chile, Columbia, Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Russia, Singapore, Syria, Turkey, and the United States (list not exhaustive).
  • Spring 2017: 62 registered students who collectively speak more than 20 languages and come from 25 different majors and minors. 

These students have  participated in an intensive training by experts in OSINT techniques, learning to verify videos and photographs use geolocation applications to identify or corroborate locations, and experiment with cutting-edge platforms for information sharing. They have worked in teams to analyze videos of protests and bombings—drawing on their collective insights and skill sets to verify and debunk information. They have also undergone “resiliency” training to learn how to respond to the stressful work of remote human rights investigations.img_6271

What are the challenges we face in human rights investigations today?

In recent years, internet-connected mobile devices and cloud-based media-sharing platforms have proliferated across the world, allowing people to share information in innovative ways. While journalists and human rights researchers have long used photographs and videos to expose human rights abuses, they now face a deluge of digital information, including video, images, audio files, text-based messages, and other communications. To provide just one example, over four million videos with the keyword “Syria” have been uploaded to YouTube in the last year alone. Ironically, this volume poses a daunting challenge for human rights actors, who need to not only comb through those videos, but also to verify and authenticate them. “Finding a relevant video used to be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said one researcher. “Now it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack . . . made of needles.” So how do we turn this flood of data into actionable information? And how can we use it to hold those responsible accountable?

What are open source investigations? 

Human rights investigations increasingly rely on open source intelligence (OSINT)—information gleaned from social media and other sources, including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—to identify, document, and verify violations of human rights or international humanitarian law. For example, a relatively recent report from the nongovernmental organization Bellingcat convincingly documented Russian involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine—and did so exclusively with open source investigation techniques.

caesar_satellite_1One of the biggest challenges for open source investigators is verification of the information that is shared with them or that they find online. Bellingcat’s founder, Eliot Higgins, who is currently a Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center, has explained the importance of geolocation as a tool used by investigators to verify that an image is what it’s claimed to be. “Geolocation using clues in photographs or videos to find the precise location [of where an event] was captured, [thereby] verifying it is the location claimed by the person sharing it, or finding the location if none is given in the first place.” Open source investigators might also troll social media platforms to draw critical connections between high-level commanders and those who commit abuses on the ground or to track flurries of activity (such as bombings of hospitals, as reported on Twitter, or mention of outbreaks of infectious diseases).

This Lab enables us to envision a future where human rights researchers and practitioners can harness the investigative and evidentiary value of the internet. With an open source investigations lab at UC Berkeley, we believe that courts will be better able to investigate and prosecute those responsible for atrocity crimes; human rights organizations will be able to more effectively and efficiently expose abuses around the world; and public health faculty and students will be empowered to better prevent public health threats and improve access to health care for the world’s most vulnerable communities.