Although the days of Russia’s war in Ukraine are still being counted, images of atrocities have already numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
The conflict is the first to produce such a large amount of data in real time, but the sheer volume of data presents a significant challenge for those attempting to use it as evidence of war crimes.
Hadi al Khatib, whose organization Mnemonic has gathered around 400,000 pieces of material since February, said, “The amount of material that we see, we really haven’t seen before.”
Wendy Betts, whose eyeWitness to Atrocities organization has developed a custom app to help NGOs gather evidence, has been inundated as well. “We’ve had roughly as much in the last six weeks as we normally get globally in six months,” she told reporters.
International experts are part of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s plan to establish a “special mechanism” to investigate thousands of allegations of war crimes.
Betts has already turned over some footage to Ukrainian prosecutors, and Khatib has had to work with other organizations to process his.
Despite the advantages of technology, this type of footage has only been used in a few court cases so far.
Ukraine could be the birthplace of technology-assisted evidence collection. Khatib got his start in the Syrian war, where his team is still sifting through a four-million-record archive, of which only about 5% has been verified, according to him.
Artificial intelligence (AI) software is being trained to recognize items like Russian cluster bombs so that footage can be prioritized.
However, progress is slow, and each record must eventually be verified by a human.
Khatib intended to use the footage for advocacy and as a memorial, which only requires that the footage be exactly what it claims to be.
Using footage to build a legal case, on the other hand, is a different story.
Nothing could have happened to the footage anywhere along the evidence chain, it must be proven. The eyeWitness app was created specifically for this purpose, and all metadata is securely stored within the app.
Her biggest challenge is earning the trust of the NGOs and activists who may use the app.
eyeWitness has been working with people in the eastern conflict areas of Ukraine for five years and has a head start.
Betts and Khatib both emphasize how Ukraine’s technological prowess is a huge asset to their efforts.
Since the civil war in Syria, when smartphones were used for the first time in large numbers to document atrocities, activists and investigators have learned a lot.
Since then, he has worked on the so-called Islamic State’s brutal campaign in Syria and Iraq, during which the militants made extensive use of social media. His organization, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), is still sifting through tens of thousands of smartphones and computer hard drives for information about the IS conflict.
“From a narrow criminal investigative perspective, modern technology and its ubiquitous use in conflict zones is very much a two-edged sword, and it mostly cuts the wrong way,” he said.
Both he and Khatib compare the amount of data and the software’s ability to provide accurate analysis.
Wiley suggested that investigators be picky about what footage they use, citing an attack on a theatre in Mariupol on March 16 that is thought to have killed hundreds of civilians. “A photograph of the aircraft circling the target before the bomb was dropped isn’t required,” he explained.
Instead, whether it’s phone call intercepts, email chains, or old-fashioned paper trails, he’ll be looking to protect any information that could link such attacks to whoever ordered them.
However, all of the investigators agree that they are part of a team with similar objectives.
“All of these pieces of information will be required to piece together this massive evidentiary puzzle,” Betts said.
And they all believe that there will be accountability in the end.