Berkeley’s Human Rights Investigations Lab trains students to document human rights abuses

The Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law—winner of the 2015 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions—announces the piloting of the Human Rights Investigations Lab, the world’s first university-based initiative to use open sources for human rights documentation and accountability.

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Berkeley students practice open source investigation skills during Amnesty International’s Training.

Amnesty International is partnering with Berkeley’s Human Rights Center as well as the University of Essex and University of Pretoria as part of its Digital Verification Corps, training students to use open source methods to bring attention to human rights abuses as well as gather evidence of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for future prosecutions.

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Human Rights Center Executive Director Alexa Koenig launches the Human Rights Investigations Lab.

“We’re working toward a future where human rights researchers and practitioners can effectively harness the investigative and evidentiary value of the internet,” said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center. “With an open source investigations lab at UC Berkeley, we believe that lawyers will be better able to investigate and prosecute those responsible for atrocity crimes and human rights organizations will be able to more effectively and efficiently expose abuses around the world.”

Amnesty’s experts came to Berkeley last month to train more than 40 Berkeley students—who collectively speak 14 languages—to verify photographs and videos and use geolocation tools. The students area already beginning to gather and verify video footage from Syria. (Read Berkeley student Ilaf Esuf’s reflection about her involvement with the la.)

“What we hope to achieve with this project is to help Amnesty’s researchers take advantage of content shared on social media and have it verified. But we’re also in a unique position where we can help train the next generation of human rights investigators in skills that are increasingly sought after,” said Sam Dubberley, the manager of the Digital Verification Corps for Amnesty. “It’s just so great to have three universities around the globe so willing to embrace this project.

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Amnesty International’s Milena Marin and Sam Dubberley speak at UC Berkeley.

In recent years, smart phones and media-sharing platforms have proliferated, 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.

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. Bellingcat’s founder, Eliot Higgins, is a Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center.

The Human Rights Center recognizes the potential of tapping the expertise of Berkeley’s graduate and undergraduate students—from disciplines such as journalism, law, political science, computer science, and more—to make a significant contribution to human rights investigations for both journalistic and legal purposes.

“Open source investigations promise to help bring perpetrators to justice and truth to light,” said Koenig. “We are excited to draw from a vast pool of talented Berkeley students who are eager to contribute to human rights investigations and to be trained by expert journalists and investigators from around the world.”