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Data privacy

Making the invisible visible with video

Dia Kayyali, leader of the Tech & Advocacy program at WITNESS, shares their thoughts on human rights advocacy using today’s technology advancements.

In today’s world, an abundant amount of data and information floods the internet with content, and it shows no signs of slowing down. How can human rights advocates break through the noise? Dia Kayyali from the non-profit human rights advocacy group WITNESS talked with Nick Glicher, director of TrustLaw at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, to discuss how video techniques and training can equip advocates with the tools they need to make an impact. In the interview that follows, Dia shares their thoughts on how to make a difference from the ground up.


Nick Glicher: The WITNESS motto (“See it. Film it. Change it.”) is a really powerful and simple call to enable people anywhere to use video and technology to protect and defend human rights. From your perspective, tell me about the importance of teaching people who are suffering abuse, the basics of video production techniques in a safe and ethical manner.

Dia Kayyali: When you put a camera in someone’s hand and they know how to effectively use it, they can tell their own stories and create their own media, which is incredibly important. The people we work with are oftentimes inaccurately portrayed by the media, but when they have the skills to create their own stories, people become empowered to counter that.

It’s partially about storytelling, but it’s also partially about being able to use video as evidence. We are seeing a real shift as organizations like the International Criminal Court are conducting open-source investigations and looking for these types of videos.

Storytelling, changing the narrative, using videos as evidence, and more often than not it’s about preserving history because if it weren’t for the people out there with cell phones and cameras taking these videos there would be no record of what’s happening.

Glicher: It must be quite challenging to work out how to tailor the way you interpret the film and film makers to ensure that you can respond to the fact that every situation is unique. As WITNESS has been around for 25 years now, you’ve seen firsthand the impact of new technologies becoming cheaper and more accessible. Presumably this has changed your work. How do you go about leveraging these new advances to help make sure your message goes out more effectively, giving more people access to it?

Kayyali:  It has been a huge change, exponentially increasing at an unprecedented rate. And now, a lot of our work actually focuses on how people can use cell phones to video, whereas we traditionally would have been training people to use cameras.

I have to say the framing of your question is interesting because obviously technology is a huge opportunity. That being said, we’re also in a completely different climate when it comes to the video material that is out there. We are now dealing with a huge flood of video content because of technology advances; and now we are trying to creatively think how to use those tools to our advantage. The results have been our work with the Guardian project on Android apps.

We have two apps – one is ProofMode, an app that automatically adds an encrypted chunk of data to your media, making it more verifiable and easier to show it has not been tampered with. The other, ObscuraCam, lets you blur faces directly on your mobile phone to ensure the privacy of those subjects. It is these sorts of technologies that we are really hopeful about and would love to see major platforms incorporate into their tools and made available for everyone.

It’s just such a huge flow of videos everybody is filming, which is great, but it also presents a bunch of new and different challenges around making a video more effective, respecting people’s privacy, promoting ethical filming and the safety of people. It’s all becoming harder and harder.

Dia Kayyali, from the non-profit human rights advocacy group WITNESS.

Glicher: With all the changes in the political landscape over the last few years and the rise of populism, fake news and doctored content, it seems to have enabled people to make points they might otherwise not have been able to make, so I suppose my question is how do you break through the noise?

Kayyali: Unfortunately, the fact is that people, who are peddling hate, are very good at getting their content seen. For us, it’s about having stuff that’s reliable and impactful, and we have really specific tips for people that are available in our library. We’re teaching folks things like filming in a continuous shot, pan slowly, don’t move quickly, and catch the details that prove the authenticity of the video. For example, catch street signs, film watches or other clocks, catch shadows as another way to show what time it is because it becomes self-verifiable.

In some ways, we are teaching people to think like lawyers because a lot of what we do is also talking to people about how to add context to their video, not only to make it pop up but to also make sure that it doesn’t get removed from platforms.

We’re dealing with so much material that is human rights related, often times rather graphic and can fall under the graphic content exceptions for a lot of platforms but is needed to demonstrate human rights infringements.

Glicher: Picking up on one of the points you made there, the fact that some of these videos are being removed from platforms because of its graphic nature is giving these companies and platforms a huge amount of power in determining what they perceive as acceptable or not. What do you see the role of these platforms and technology companies playing in promoting human rights?

Kayyali: I think the responsibility of platforms and tech companies is a huge question right now. And you can’t talk about this without talking about Facebook. As far as I am concerned, Facebook needs to accept that its role is not neutral in anything that’s happening in the world right now. What it does with content has a huge effect on the world.

It really needs to figure out how it will treat content on its platform with a little bit more of an eye towards international human rights, and in particular freedom of expression. Many people are focused on talking about the data, but it’s really important not to miss freedom of expression.

Glicher: Given that Facebook and other social platforms out there aren’t neutral but cast such a huge impression, can you try and force them to make changes? How would you go about that?

Kayyali: We try to talk to every platform that the people we work with are using. Facebook today is the biggest, closely followed by YouTube. Although it depends on the company, at the most basic level companies are willing to talk with civil society organizations, especially if you’re bringing them specific examples and/or detailed feedback: “This is how users are experiencing the product…” Its partially about getting in the door and trying to provide specific examples, but it’s also partially about calling attention to issues as we see them popping up.

Media attention on issues is probably one of the biggest factors that are going to impact whether companies will make a change, however there are some companies that already have specific human rights staff focused on those issues.

Interestingly enough, to me it feels somewhat similar to policy advocacy with elected representatives in the U.S.; you have to make your case, you have to be clear and show why they should take action when there are so many other people who might have different agendas.

Glicher: I have heard that the 2011 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling allowing citizens to record police interactions in public places is being called the most important civil liberties matter (in the U.S.) in our lifetime. How important is it to be able to record public officials and their interactions with the population at large? Do you see other calls for transparency in other countries? Is that becoming a spearhead movement for other democracies around the world?

Kayyali: In this instance, the U.S. circuit courts have upheld the right to record the police as protected by the 1st amendment to the Constitution, which is a really good model for what we would like to see in other places when it comes to the right to record. It’s a major issue around the world in terms of advocacy and making big changes. We’re actually hoping that we can help some of that get going since the right to record really varies in different places. In some places there already exists the right to record, but it is not always respected as you might expect.

Using the U.S. as an example is definitely a tactic we are interested in exploring. Whatever it is that we can do, we really want to push the policy.

Glicher: With all the changes in technology, access to media, and people’s perception of transparency, do you have a sense of where video activism will go? Do you have an idea of what might happen or what you would like to see happen in the next five years or so?

Kayyali: I think one thing we would really like to see happen is more people who have the capability to create organized bodies of content. There are so many groups out there with years and years of footage that is not searchable or easily accessible. Even when the footage is really well done, if you can’t find it, it isn’t useful. So we would really like to see more people with the skills and abilities to create well organized archives that are easy to access. That’s one change.

Another change over the next five years is specifically for tech advocacy. I am really hoping to see this change on platforms in that they are really committed to upholding freedom of expression and human rights and start treating human rights material as priority content on their platforms. They have enforcement teams that really understand it and aren’t accidentally deleting it, algorithms that can differentiate between extremist or other problematic propaganda, and human rights content. This is going to be huge.

Then the third thing that I would like to see is more of a ‘do no harm’ perspective in the videos that activists are creating. Many have a general understanding of the strengths of video but they also need to understand the associated repercussions and dangers to accidental bystanders, so people can take risks when it’s appropriate and at the same time ensure there’s proper consent from everyone involved.

So it’s archives, platform changes, and a better understanding of ethics, safety and privacy issues. Then of course, the last is we always just want to see more people who know how to create the kind of effective and useful video we’re training people to create.

Glicher: That sounds like your motto, “See it. Film it. Change it.”

Kayyali: Exactly. Those are the things we’ve been working on for many years, especially as they have become incredibly urgent in recent years.


Learn more

For additional content concerning the use of personal data in the digital age, be sure to explore the rest of our multimedia series: A new dawn for data privacy and transparency.

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