During more than five months of war in Ukraine, reports have emerged of Russian soldiers targeting schools and other civilian infrastructure for attack, committing sexual assault and torturing individual Ukrainians.
But prosecuting war crimes remains a difficult task, even in an age when pictures and video can be easily, instantly shared on social media — because they can just as quickly be removed.
Now some researchers are betting that the same blockchain technology that underlies cryptocurrency and NFTs, known broadly as Web3, can preserve evidence of war crimes to aid in prosecution. Starling Lab, an academic research group backed by Stanford University and the University of Southern California, has used Web3 technology to document alleged war crimes in Syria and Ukraine and last month filed evidence of alleged war crimes in Ukraine with the International Criminal Court (ICC). That filing was the first ICC complaint to use the approach, Starling Lab said.
The ongoing conflict in Syria, which has raged for more than a decade, illustrates how easily online photos, videos and other evidence of war crimes can disappear. In May 2020, researchers with Syrian Archive documenting potential war crimes saw over 350,000 videos deleted from YouTube, including videos of aerial attacks and the destruction of civilian homes, due to automated content moderation designed to block violent content. A 2020 report from Human Rights Watch found that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube content had removed 11 percent of content cited in 4,739 reports of alleged war crimes.
“The content is taken down because of Terms of Service violations, or the user’s account is disabled because people decide not to maintain the account because of threats or out of just negligence,” said Jonathan Dotan, the founding director of Starling Lab. “The problem has gotten worse because of automated takedowns of content,” said Dotan. “So as human reviewing goes down and automation goes up, you lose basically the subtlety and the care required to make that determination on what’s evidence.”
Documenting the web
Milena Marin, head of Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab, said it’s not just social media — even services like Google Drive have restricted her from sharing evidence among a tight team of people because the video documented violence.
“It happens a lot,” said Marin. “In the context of Ukraine, people pivoted to Telegram as a channel because that’s much less moderated and they can share whatever — as opposed to using some of the more traditional platforms where content is being taken down by default sometimes.”
Dotan said there are three main issues when it comes to ensuring evidence is preserved. First is separating out the signal from the noise, or ensuring the information is accurate in times of conflict, given state actors use things like misinformation to spread various narratives. Take, for example, Russia’s use of autopsied bodies to claim Ukrainian soldiers were committing attacks against civilians.
The second is “link rot,” because centralized authorities that are guaranteeing information availability can change their mind at any time. YouTube’s takedowns are just one example. And the third issue is authentication. Even if something is archived, there is no guarantee is has not been altered or doctored.
All of these issues create problems for researchers and could in fact hamper the prosecution of potential war crimes down the line.
Dotan and Starling Lab are bringing new technologies such as blockchain technology and NFTs to bear on the issue, focusing on documenting, verifying and sharing evidence of potential war crimes.
Starling Lab recently filed an Article 15 filing with the International Criminal Court, providing over 100 pages of evidence of potential war crimes it has documented in Ukraine. An Article 15 filing is the first step toward a potential prosecution by the court and initiates a yearslong investigation by the ICC that may or may not culminate in charges. Starling Lab’s submission covers two weeks of attacks on Kharkiv in March, including attacks on schools. Lab researchers worked in conjunction with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and Hala Systems, which develops tech that defends civilians.
Ashley Jordana, associate director of accountability at Hala Systems who drafted the Article 15 filing, said that it was just the beginning of an iterative process that involves experts in Web3 and the legal system consulting on available evidence, how it was preserved and what it signifies. Judges who deal with war crimes cases may not be fluent in — or even aware of — Web3 technology but will need to understand it for any legal proceedings to take place. Well before that point, ICC investigators will need to have a firm grasp on these new methods to document and preserve evidence, and how they are grounded in the preexisting international legal apparatus.
“I think unless there is understanding on all those initial stages that happen, which are more purely legal stages, and you’re making sure information is collected ethically and under principles that do no harm — all of that feeds into the investigation cycle,” said Jordana. “Unless that’s done well, then there’s no point in getting to the middle ground of preservation [of evidence] if all of that has not already been done properly.”
Starling Lab and its partners take a number of different approaches to making sure that they gather evidence, vet it and also ensure that it cannot be tampered with. First, they log metadata about posts, such as the author and the date that it was posted, as well as create a cryptographic “hash” of the content, like a digital fingerprint, that would alert them if the content was altered. These are then logged to various blockchains, which you can think of as a digital ledger, where they cannot be altered by any one company or person.
They then store the material on decentralized storage networks such as Filecoin and Storj, meaning, again, that no one company can remove the evidence from the web. There is no single point of failure.
Finally, the team works with members on the ground to verify the posts and provide additional documentation. In the case of the ICC filing, this meant visiting the schools in question and taking photos, comparing the size of a hole in the wall with the one depicted online, and gathering additional context.
“Then cryptographic audits are done every 24 hours,” said Dotan. “And we go through that verification process by basically establishing a custody NFT which says, ‘OK, here’s the institution that’s going to have custody,’ and then we provide access NFTs to do the verification work in creating this larger web of knowledge.”
A real-world use of Web3
While much of the crypto world focuses on the price of various cryptocurrencies going up or going down, Starling Lab and partners are using the underlying technology of Web3 in a way that has nothing to do with price points.
Dotan said the approach is not just innovative technologically — it also represents a new way of thinking about war crime evidence from a legal perspective. Without the legal and tech side working in tandem, the Web3 approach won’t work.
In the meantime, getting social media platforms to stop taking down war crimes evidence remains a challenge to those seeking to document such atrocities. As individual conflicts, like the one in Syria, fade from media attention, there is less content posted but also less attention if things are taken down, which can lead to cases of takedowns getting overlooked.
“We have to understand that these are commercial companies,” said Marin. “They may serve a little bit of a good in society, but they are commercial companies, and they will be driven by commercial interests. So I don’t think that preserving war crimes is any way high in their list of things to do.”
Beyond the companies though, there may be a question as to why do this, with Web3 tech, at all.
“If you don’t start this process, it will never come to pass, and I think one of the things that happens sometimes with the work that we do is you look around and you’re like, ‘This is something that needs to get done.’” said John Jaeger, CEO of Hala Systems. “And I don’t know who else is going to do it.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.