When anti-virus fugitive John McAfee was on the run in Guatemala, the journalists he was with inconveniently exposed his location to authorities by posting a photo to Vice Magazine’s website that contained metadata identifying his whereabouts.
Bit of an oversight, that. For McAfee, the consequences couldn’t have been more serious. They resulted in an arrest, a humiliation, and a hospitalization. For less cartoonish figures, however, the consequences of unintentional metadata leaks from digital photographs can be even more severe.
Human rights activists and journalists in conflict zones routinely put their lives at risk by attempting to record video and images in dangerous places, where in many cases powerful militant bodies would rather they not. Think of Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran. In many such cases, however, they face the opposite problem to what McAfee naively exposed himself to. Instead of accidentally leaking identifying information, they actually need it. When oppressive forces are only too willing to manipulate digital data and photographs for their own nefarious ends, the value of verification becomes ever more crucial.
That’s why the 20-year-old Witness, an NGO that promotes and supports the use of videography and photography as a means to document human rights abuses, has, in conjunction with the Guardian Project, developed InformaCam, an app that bakes in a bunch of metadata to “watermark” an image or video. Today, the Knight Foundation announced that Witness is one of eight recipients of its mobile innovation grants, intended to facilitate projects that “inform and engage communities.” Witness is getting $320,000 from the Foundation. In total, the Knight Foundation is doling out $2.4 million worth of grants to the eight recipients.
Witness’ technology manager Bryan Nunez says the InformaCam app will automatically add encrypted metadata to photos and video so that whoever receives them can know where they were taken, at what time of day, and various other nuggets of mobile-enabled information, which can include temperature, altitude, motion, and cell tower details.
Nunez is realistic about just how widespread InformaCam will become. He doesn’t expect it to be used by everyone to capture evidence of protests, riots, and human rights abuses the world over. Instead, however, he wants Witness to help establish a “digital signature” standard for developers to follow in the future.
“Our long term strategy is that apps like this will serve as a reference design for future products that commercial companies will produce,” Nunez says. He envisages insurance companies, for instance, using the technology to make sure that photographic claims of damage to vehicles are legitimate. Such companies could insist that claimants use InformaCam-like technology to validate their claims.
Not only is the Knight grant crucial to Witness’ operations – human rights technology operations aren’t exactly swimming in capital – but it could also help broaden the applications of the technology. The Knight Foundation’s media connections could mean that InformaCam is used by journalists, which means the app could become more mainstream. That way, if an InformaCam user is picked up by authorities, the app won’t immediately come across as subversive. That defensive element is in keeping with Witness’ mission to protect activists and their sources.
The Knight Foundation’s mobile grants are one of three rounds of funding given out each year to accelerate community-oriented projects, many of which this year are directed at developing countries.
Seven other organizations are receiving grants from the Knight Foundation in this round of funding. According to biographies provided the Knight Foundation, they are:
Digital Democracy: Enabling residents of the Peruvian Amazon to document the effects of mining and oil drilling by creating a mobile tool kit they can use to collect and share data. ($200,000)
Art Center College of Design: Piloting software that will connect basic mobile phones with a transmitter to turn them into micro community radio stations. The effort is being tested in Uganda. ($200,000)
Appfrica: Creating an app that turns a SIM card into a storage device for news and information. The app will be particularly useful in crisis situations, allowing journalists and others to safely transfer information when communication networks are compromised or disabled. ($150,000)
Textizen: Expanding the ways governments can collect citizen input by enabling it through text. Piloted through Code for America, Textizen works by placing survey questions in physical places like parks and bus stops where residents will encounter them and can text in their opinion. ($350,000)
TKOH: Creating a more natural tool for recording oral histories with an app that prompts people to tell stories when they see pre-selected photos or videos. ($330,000)
Wikimedia Foundation: The Wikimedia Foundation is working to remove the two biggest hurdles to access free knowledge: cost and accessibility. News Challenge funding will help create software to bring Wikipedia to lower-end, more basic phones – the kinds the majority of people use to access data outside of the West. Specifically, efforts will be focused in three areas: developing features to improve the mobile experience regardless of how feature-rich the device is; increasing the number of languages that can access Wikipedia on mobile; and improving the way feature phones access the platform. ($600,000)
Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation: Connecting small farmers in developing countries with advice and feedback via a platform through which they can ask questions and have them quickly answered by farmers in other communities. In the pilot, a Kenyan farmer received advice on frost control and tips on raising rabbits. ($260,000)