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Using metadata to prove the reliability and validity of footage

There are numerous secure camera apps on the market, some of which are designed to record sensitive information such as human rights violations. However, if you are taking photos and videos in the hopes of convicting perpetrators in court, then not all camera apps are up to the task. The reason is courts require proof that the footage shows what you claim it does. A specialised camera app can help with this. However, if you use an app that is not designed for legal proceedings, your videos and photos could be disregarded as unreliable. Very often, unreliability comes down to discrepancies and errors with the photo or video’s metadata.

Metadata summarises a photo or video’s basic information. For example, the footage’s time and location, and the device it was taken with. Metadata is important because it can verify that the footage was taken when and where the photographer says it was. It can also show that the footage has not been tampered with. Accurate and unaltered metadata is fundamental to reliability. As such, you need to choose a camera app that captures metadata in the right way.

The not-for-profit eyeWitness to Atrocities developed its eyeWitness app to meet this challenge. As the only secure camera app created by legal experts, the eyeWitness app collects and stores metadata in a unique way that adheres to the toughest legal requirements. It also helps to protect its users’ identities by not collecting personally identifiable information.

This article outlines what metadata eyeWitness collects; how eyeWitness captures, stores and transmits metadata; and, finally, how eyeWitness protects your privacy.

What metadata should be collected for photos and videos to be used as evidence in court

  • Our extensive legal research has identified that the key information for verification includes the footage’s location, date and time.

    We also know that more metadata is not always better when it comes to use in court. The opposing counsel could use any incorrect or inconsistent metadata to discredit the integrity of the footage itself. As such, the eyeWitness app does not capture information that cannot be recorded consistently.

    For these reasons, the eyeWitness app collects the following:

    1. GPS latitude and GPS longitude
    2. Accuracy of the latitude and longitude
    3. Details about nearby WiFi networks within range of the mobile phone
    4. Details about nearby cell towers within range of the mobile phone
    5. GPS date and GPS time
    6. Device date and device time

    Many camera apps capture similar data. However, as explained below, not all apps capture it in a way that stands up in court.

How metadata should be captured for photos and videos to be used in court

  • One of the biggest problems with camera apps (including the standard camera on your phone) is that they do not always record location, time and date accurately. Here are common problems with some camera apps:

    1. They rely on the device’s connection to a mobile network and WiFi to determine location. Some camera apps use phone signal and WiFi connections to pinpoint the location of a device. This means if you do not have signal or are offline, the camera app will not be able to record the location. This is particularly problematic in the event of internet shutdowns or in remote, rural areas.
    2. They pull from memory. In the event that a camera app cannot find a GPS or phone signal, many camera apps will use the phone’s last known location. However, this may be miles away from the device’s current location.
    3. They pull the date and time only from the device itself. This is usually the case with your phone’s default camera app. Since anyone can change the date and time on their phone, this is not a reliable source of information on its own.

    To overcome these problems, eyeWitness does the following:

    1. The eyeWitness app works offline. It does not rely on being connected to WiFi or cellular networks in order to collect metadata. This means that you do not need a data plan or even a SIM card.
    2. The eyeWitness app regularly clears old data. This ensures the app will not record historic, inaccurate locations, times and dates.
    3. The eyeWitness app captures metadata from multiple sources. Location is found by using GPS and identifying what WiFi networks and cell towers are near the device. Date and time are taken from GPS and the device. Using multiple sources means that even if one method fails (for instance, there are no cell towers or WiFi networks in range), eyeWitness will still be able to give a reading. It also means that the footage is very credible when all sources produce the same result.

    eyeWitness presents all of this complicated raw data in a clear, readable format for its partners. We even plot GPS, WiFi, and cell tower locations on a map.

    Figure 1 Where eyeWitness sources metadata from

Top tip: record metadata that phone sensors can capture reliably.

Altitude is an example of unreliable data. Because mobile devices are not altimeters, they are not capable of recording altitude with accuracy. Similarly, other data points such as speed or bearing are not helpful in demonstrating your footage is reliable.

How the photos and videos are stored and transmitted to ensure they have not been altered

  • As we have said, courts require proof that no one has tampered with the footage at any point. In legal terms, this is called protecting the chain of custody. This is due to the risks of individuals editing and altering media and data to create fake evidence. If your camera app allows you to export and download your footage and metadata, then then you have the ability to change them. The chain of custody is broken, and they will no longer be reliable on their own. Consequently, they will require corroboration such as your testimony in court.

    eyeWitness guarantees that all footage cannot be edited or altered, thus ensuring the chain of custody is intact. It does this in four ways:

    Firstly, as soon as you take the footage, the eyeWitness app automatically generates a unique identifying code known as a “hash value”. This hash value serves as a digital fingerprint. This step ensures that any subsequent changes to the footage can be detected.

    Secondly, eyeWitness does not allow you to upload footage taken from another camera app or device. The reason is eyeWitness cannot prove that the footage was not altered prior to being uploaded.

    Thirdly, the app does not allow you to immediately download or export your footage. Instead, the app asks you to upload the original photo or video to the secure, encrypted eyeWitness server, where we can protect the chain of custody for you. Once eyeWitness receives the footage, you automatically keep a copy that you then can download and export as normal.

    Fourthly, and finally, eyeWitness stores footage securely. All footage taken through the app is stored in an encrypted storage area within the eyeWitness app itself, separate from your phone gallery. The eyeWitness server that users upload their footage to is encrypted, secure, and access controlled.

    Figure 2 eyeWitness stores all footage in a separate gallery that can only be accessed using a 6 digit pin

    Importantly, eyeWitness also provides a thorough explanation of its technology and processes so courts can understand how eyeWitness ensures the chain of custody.

Protecting your privacy: using encryption and avoiding identifiable information

  • When it comes to monitoring atrocities and human rights abuses, you do not want your camera app to capture any identifiable information about you.

    eyeWitness does not collect any identifying information unless you voluntarily provide it. The eyeWitness app collects the following information about you and your device:

    • Username – which is not unique and can be an alias
    • Email – providing an email is strictly voluntary
    • Device model
    • Device name
    • Device product
    • Device version
    • Android API level

    We do not collect device IMEI numbers, MAC addresses, or IP addresses from which you submit your footage.

    You also need to ensure that all of your footage is encrypted and secure. As stated previously, all footage you take using the eyeWitness app is encrypted when stored and transmitted.

    To find out more about metadata, take a look at our articles on Witness.org: Part 1 ‘Understanding the data points that apps collect, and how they are generated’, and Part 2 ‘Understanding the limitations of metadata when it is used for legal purposes’.

    Figure 3 eyeWitness warns you and gives you the chance to opt out of giving any personally identifiable informaton

Top tip: There are two quick ways to see if your camera app protects the chain of custody.

  1. Check where it saves your footage. If it saves it in your device’s regular gallery, it does not protect the chain of custody. This is because your normal gallery gives you the ability to edit, export and download all media.
  2. Check whether it lets you download, edit, export or share your media. All of these actions break the chain of custody.