Cameras Everywhere

Executive Summary


From the Arab Spring, with its use of social media, cell phones and the internet, to the release of confidential documents by Wikileaks, new technologies and new approaches are challenging long-held assumptions about how human rights documentation and advocacy functions, and who does it.

Video has emerged as a key means through which human rights abuses can be exposed, while also contributing more broadly to ensuring that transparency, accountability and good governance are upheld.

But while video and other communications technologies present new opportunities for freedom of expression and information, they also present challenges and expose vulnerabilities. In the video age, more people, intentionally or inadvertently, have become human rights advocates than ever before. Those seeking to create lasting impact will need to develop new skills and systems for creating and handling human rights video, online and off. But their access, privacy and safety is dependent on a wider range of people too, from governments and international organizations, to companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter and Nokia. Access to information, technology, skills and networks shapes who can participate — and survive — in this emerging ecosystem of free expression.

WITNESS’ Cameras Everywhere aims to ensure that the thousands of people using video for human rights can do so as effectively, safely and ethically as possible. This report is based on discussions with over 40 senior experts and practitioners in technology and human rights. It presents a roadmap to emerging trends in policy and practice at the intersection of human rights, technology, social media, and business. Cameras Everywhere goes on to make specific recommendations on how important players in the new human rights landscape can take specific, manageable steps to strengthen the practical and policy environments for human rights video, and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) used for human rights.

There are five areas that present the most pressing challenges: Privacy and Safety; Network Vulnerabilities; Information Overload, Authentication and Preservation; Ethics; and Policy.


It is clear that new technologies, particularly the mobile phone, have made it simpler for human rights defenders and others to record and report violations, but harder for them to do so securely. The ease of copying, tagging and circulating images over a variety of platforms adds a layer of risk beyond an individual user’s control. All content and communications, including visual media, leave personal digital traces that third parties can harvest, link and exploit. Hostile governments, in particular, can use photo and video data — particularly that linked with social networking data — to identify track and target activists within their countries, facilitated by the growth of automatic face- detection and recognition software.

Without proactive policymaking, legislative or regulatory loopholes will be taken advantage of where they exist. Technology companies, for example, must ensure that their products, suppliers and services protect users’ privacy and data by default, and should place a greater focus on privacy by design.

It is alarming how little public discussion there is about visual privacy and anonymity. Everyone is discussing and designing for privacy of personal data, but almost no-one is considering the right to control one’s personal image or the right to be anonymous in a video-mediated world. The human rights community’s understanding of the importance of anonymity as an enabler of free expression must now develop a new dimension — the right to visual anonymity.


Technology providers like Google and Facebook have recently been pushed to the forefront of human rights debates. The responsibility of these providers as intermediaries for activist and human rights purposes have been brought into focus by the Arab Spring. Though activists have long been using websites, like Dailymotion and YouTube, to rally and inform their supporters, almost none of these sites has a human rights content category, whether for user contributions or for curators or editors. Providers do not have publicly available editorial policies or standards specifically focused on human rights content. Some activists have faced content, campaign or even account takedown for “violating” terms of use policies. Video content is vulnerable to interception, takedown and censorship, and needs active protection. Mechanisms are evolving to make automatic censorship of video content more widely possible. On commercial platforms videos showing graphic violence or killing are vulnerable to takedowns. Copyright policy, backed by powerful music/film industry lobbies, impacts public interest content using parodies or remixes.

Surveillance technologies that can have a legitimate law enforcement use, such as in tracking child exploitation online, can also be used to block or censor political or human rights content or to covertly monitor advocates. International standards for scrutiny and export control of such dual-use technologies do exist, but these need revision and strengthening.

We must increase the resilience, reach and accountability of communications networks, public and private. The human rights community must also invest in alternative means of communicating, preserving and distributing human rights content.


With more video material coming directly to the public from a wider range of sources, it is increasingly urgent to find ways to rapidly verify or trust such information. Alongside more manual, forensic techniques of verification, technology-driven initiatives are underway to provide technical verification and digital chain-of-custody footage, and to help underpin the use of video in evidentiary, legal, media and archival contexts. However, significant questions remain over how to vouch for authenticity, protect safety, and communicate the original intention of human rights footage. Civil society organizations may need to develop common information standards or shared protocols — or adapt them from journalism.

As the store of human rights content grows, curating and aggregating it in ways that are clear and appealing becomes a major challenge. In addition, ensuring that human rights video remains persistently available is important for awareness, advocacy and justice — and commercial organisations cannot be relied upon to do this. Neither is it easy for individual users of commercial platforms and technology to understand how to back up their human rights content, especially in crisis situations.


The place of ethics in social media content and conduct is increasingly under the spotlight, primarily around usage by young people and other potentially vulnerable groups. Human rights needs, including how consent of video participants is secured, can come into conflict with the free flowing spread of content and identity through social media. Ethical frameworks and guidelines for online content are in their infancy and do not yet explicitly reflect or incorporate human rights standards.

More needs to be done to tie together ethics in digital spaces with ethics in the physical world, which might prove helpful both for those “born digital” and those that are not.


Technology, and the internet in particular, evolves much more quickly than legislative and policy responses to it. When policy responses are introduced, they are often inconsistent across different policy domains and, moreover, developed behind closed doors, beyond public debate and scrutiny.

United States and European Union policy towards the internet and mobile communications strongly influences similar policies in other parts of the world. Yet neither the United States nor the European Union routinely applies human rights standards in forming internet policies. Intergovernmental organizations such as the UN are — in general — not yet agile players within the policy-making arena of the internet, though some specific agencies and Special Rapporteurs are developing new, widely- consulted frameworks. Meanwhile some governments, notably China, are making headway both shaping policy against freedom of expression domestically, and seeking to influence international standards bodies.


Long-term and sustainable change for the effective use of video for human rights requires genuine engagement between civil society, business and government to be impactful. We outline several key steps — for technology companies and developers, investors, human rights organizations, funders and policy makers — that must be taken to enhance the potential of video for human rights, and more broadly, to ensure that all people can use technology safely, effectively, and ethically.


Recommendations to technology companies and developers focus on four sets of changes — to policy, functionality, editorial content, and engagement. Making these changes would not only positively affect the entire environment for online and mobile video, but would also free up resources in civil society.

  1. Put human rights at the core of user and content policies: Reevaluate current policies using human rights impact assessments, create human rights content categories that are not vulnerable to arbitrary takedowns and highlight key values around context and consent, and ensure content is preserved wherever possible.
  2. Put human rights at the heart of privacy controls and allow for anonymity: Make privacy policies more visible and privacy controls more functional using principles of privacy by design, and allow for visual privacy and anonymity with the help of new products, apps and services.
  3. Create dedicated digital human rights spaces: Support curation of human rights videos, facilitate user education and understanding of human rights issues, make takedown and editorial policies transparent, employ Creative Commons licensing, and support users in dealing with ethics and safety issues.
  4. Engage in wider technology-human rights debates and initiatives: Draw on expertise across companies in order to collaborate on human rights guidelines, participate in multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the Global Network Initiative, and address supply chain and environmental impact issues.


Venture capitalists and investors play a critical role in bringing high-quality technology products and services that could yield major gains to the human rights community.

  1. Put human rights at the forefront of investment: Work to understand the human rights implications of technologies.
  2. Collaborate with human rights funders: Use joint funding mechanisms for technology development for human rights.


The fight for human rights is increasingly intertwined with technology usage and policy. In the digital age, it is proving to be increasingly critical for human rights organizations to collaborate more with non-traditional partners, while standing firm on core universal human rights values, standards and principles until they take root in the technology sphere.

  1. Engage with technologists: Dedicate resources and expertise to strengthening own capacity and communicating and collaborating with technologists on human rights issues.
  2. Support training and learning on using technology for human rights.
  3. Collaborate more, compete less: Create a human rights-technology network, coordinate cross-platform discussions and engage with key policymakers, civil society, media, business and technology funders/investors, and develop human rights principles for investments in information and communications technologies.
  4. Invest in research: Develop more effective monitoring and evaluation systems, create predictive models that can anticipate trends in technology and policy that may impact human rights policy, and share findings with key players.


Governmental, foundation and private donors play a critical role in conducting and supporting research, activism and advocacy on issues related to human rights and technology. To increase impact, their funding need to become more transparent, accessible, harmonized and less risk-averse.

  1. Increase transparency in funding around who is funding what and how.
  2. Collaborate with other funders, investors and technology developers: Create multi-donor spaces on technology and human rights, including emerging crowd- funding platforms, as well as new donors outside U.S./Europe, and create both joint funding mechanisms with investors and review boards that can assess risk in proposals.
  3. Lead in developing effective monitoring and evaluations methodologies for human rights and technologies.


Policy and lawmakers play a central role in guaranteeing that citizens have access and the capability to use information technologies in a manner that protects and promotes their rights. They also often set the frameworks within which ICTs are governed and held accountable. The recommendations below are an initial subset primarily centered on the U.S. and EU.

  1. Review existing legislation for consistency: Ensure policies are human rights- compatible across key areas of legislation and policymaking, both domestically and internationally.
  2. Update legislation on visual privacy issues: Review the Safe Harbor Principles and EU Data Protection Directive and incorporate visual privacy data into existing restrictions on the transfer of personal data between countries.
  3. Review national legislation and international agreements on dual-use technologies: Scrutinize and update monitoring practices for dual-use technologies, particularly those used by repressive regimes and other governments for repressive purposes.


WITNESS will work to ensure that the millions of people turning to video for human rights can do so as effectively, safely and ethically as possible. Never before has there been such potential for diverse stakeholders to harness the possibilities of human rights video. As video becomes more central to human rights struggles, WITNESS will deepen our global leadership role by fostering a more conducive environment for video to support human rights. We plan to:

  1. Create WITNESS Labs: Support a series of collaborations with technology developers to create innovative tools that support human rights and address the challenges raised by the increasing use of video, particularly within grassroots human rights campaigns.
  2. Engage with key stakeholders in technology and human rights: Advocate on the key recommendations outlined in this report through private advocacy, public discussions, events, blogs and online debates.
  3. Build broad-based digital media literacy and advocacy skills for effective use of video: Develop comprehensive training tools, effective guidelines and spreadable media to support a growing number of human rights video-users.
  4. Promote public policy solutions: Review participation in multi-stakeholder initiatives, push for further discussion around visual privacy, and facilitate collaborations with key players on critical issues outlined in this report.
  5. Mobilize support for a growing field — “Why Video Matters”: Through collaborative research and reporting, further deepen the evidence-based understanding of the challenges and opportunities that video and related technologies can play in facilitating social change.
Cameras Everywhere Report

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Cameras Everywhere

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