In dangerous places around the world, where soldiers or police officers may be committing human rights abuses, a mobile phone has become a key weapon. In the hands of campaigners and victims of abuse, it can provide valuable video evidence of crimes.
Often, the first we hear of atrocities is when a scratchy video appears on YouTube.
The trouble is that often these clips are not what they seem – witness the video of a heroic Syrian boy apparently saving his sister in the middle of a fire fight. That turned out to be a fake. And even when the videos are genuine they are often not admissible as evidence because their authenticity cannot be verified to the satisfaction of a court.
This is where a new app which is going live on the Google Play store today could make all the difference. It is called EyeWitness to Atrocities and is the result of a collaboration between the International Bar Association and the legal services division of the information firm LexisNexis.
EyeWitness is designed to record photos, videos and audio recordings in a simple and secure way. It looks like any photography app, but when you open it up, it has a secure mode which means that if your phone is examined by a security official they will not see any of the material you have recorded.
The app stamps recordings with GPS coordinates, the time and location and other data which will show exactly where it was recorded and whether it has been edited. Then, when the user is in a safe location, they can upload their material to a secure database owned by the EyeWitness project. Legal experts can then examine it and decide whether it is suitable for use in courts.
But how likely is it that this idea will take off? When Wendy Betts, who runs the project, came in to show us the app, I asked whether many people would be moved to download it. She was convinced that human rights campaigners, investigators and journalists would want it and that, as the word spread, others would see its usefulness.
It is designed specifically for war zones and places where human rights abuses are common, but I wondered whether it might end up being used elsewhere. In the US, a number of videos have emerged in recent months of police officers shooting suspects, and some have led to arrests. But if they had been filmed through this app that might have reinforced the case against the officers involved.
Wendy Betts says her project will not focus on that kind of case, but will cooperate with requests for information from its database as long as it is clear it has the permission of those who uploaded the material.
The app will only be available for Android phones because that is what just about everyone has in countries where it is designed to be used.
Don’t expect EyeWitness to Atrocities to top the download charts but while many developers make inflated claims about their “life-changing” apps, in this case that could be true.