McDermott, Koenig and Murray’s article, ‘Open Source Information’s Blind Spots: Human and Machine Bias in International Criminal Investigations’ was published in the Journal of International Criminal Justice in 2021. Here is the abstract:
Digital open source information has been heralded for its democratizing potential, insofar as it allows access to a much broader range of sources and voices than would normally be consulted through traditional methods of information gathering for international criminal investigations. It also helps to overcome some of the physical access barriers that are commonplace in international criminal investigations. At a time when the use of digital open source information is becoming more widespread, this article warns of the cognitive and technical biases that can impact upon two key stages of an investigation: finding relevant information and analysing that information. At the information-gathering stage, there are particular crimes, regions, and groups of people whose experiences are more likely to be overlooked or hidden in digital open source investigations. When it comes to analysing digital open source information, there is a danger that cognitive and technical biases may influence which information is deemed most relevant and useful to an international criminal investigation, and how that information is interpreted. This article proposes some steps that can be taken to mitigate these risks.
Koenig, together with Ulic Egan, recently published ‘Power and Privilege: Investigating Sexual Violence with Digital Open Source Information’ in the Journal of International Criminal Justice. Here is the abstract:
Digital open source information — including the videos and photographs that people post to social media and other publicly accessible platforms — is increasingly valued as a critical source of evidence. While investigators have repeatedly established the value of open source information for researching a range of crimes, there is a subset of crimes that investigators have struggled to address with digital open sources — namely, sexual violence. In this article, we report on findings pulled from our interviews with international investigators and gender experts with regards to the perceived strengths and weaknesses of integrating digital open source information into international criminal investigations of sexual violence. More specifically, we elaborate on three insights into how open source investigations may be refined to better respect and protect the interests of survivors: by considering contextual issues related to ethics, power, and privilege, including the identity of the investigator and of the victims; by integrating a gender analysis and an intersectional analysis into online investigation planning; and by being thoughtful about consent, privacy, trauma and control — including who determines what happens with open source information and how such information is used in courts. We conclude with a discussion of what is needed to strengthen the efficacy and ethics of sexual violence investigations through the use of digital open sources.
Dubberley, Koenig and Murray co-edited Digital Witness (Oxford University Press, 2020). Here is the description:
From videos of rights violations, to satellite images of environmental degradation, to eyewitness accounts disseminated on social media, human rights practitioners have access to more data today than ever before. To say that mobile technologies, social media, and increased connectivity are having a significant impact on human rights practice would be an understatement. Modern technology - and the enhanced access it provides to information about abuse - has the potential to revolutionise human rights reporting and documentation, as well as the pursuit of legal accountability.
However, these new methods for information gathering and dissemination have also created significant challenges for investigators and researchers. For example, videos and photographs depicting alleged human rights violations or war crimes are often captured on the mobile phones of victims or political sympathisers. The capture and dissemination of content often happens haphazardly, and for a variety of motivations, including raising awareness of the plight of those who have been most affected, or for advocacy purposes with the goal of mobilising international public opinion. For this content to be of use to investigators it must be discovered, verified, and authenticated. Discovery, verification, and authentication have, therefore, become critical skills for human rights organisations and human rights lawyers.
This book is the first to cover the history, ethics, methods, and best-practice associated with open source research. It is intended to equip the next generation of lawyers, journalists, sociologists, data scientists, other human rights activists, and researchers with the cutting-edge skills needed to work in an increasingly digitized, and information-saturated environment.
Murray, Koenig, and McDermott, together with Emma Irving, are co-editing a Special Issue of the Journal of International Criminal Justice in 2021, on New Technologies and the Investigation of International Crimes. Here is the call for papers:
New technologies are fundamentally changing the way that international crimes are investigated and how accountability for such crimes is pursued. Digital technologies have made the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide visible in new and compelling ways, expanding the toolkit available to identify such crimes and hold perpetrators to account.
The guest co-editors, Emma Irving, Alexa Koenig, Yvonne McDermott, and Daragh Murray, together with the Journal of International Criminal Justice Editorial Board, invite paper submissions for a forthcoming symposium on new technologies and the investigation of international crimes, to be published in July 2021. The symposium will bring together theoretical, doctrinal, comparative and practical perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of new technologies for the investigation of international crimes.
Recent accountability efforts at both the international and domestic levels highlight the trend towards incorporating digital fact-finding methods into investigations. The work of the UN Fact Finding Mission for Myanmar, for example, underscored the role that satellite imagery can play in tracking the commission of alleged atrocities, and how social media content posted on Facebook and other platforms can be used to substantiate findings of command responsibility, genocidal intent, and more. The UN Commission of Inquiry on the Protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory likewise used open source materials, and videos in particular, to evidence the findings in its report. Other leading international bodies, such as the Independent, Impartial Investigative Mechanism for Syria also rely upon online open source materials, to assist in their investigations and to establish an evidence base.
Turning to the realm of criminal accountability, digital technologies play an increasingly important role in the prosecution of atrocities. Call data records, satellite imagery, social media content, and digital evidence platforms, among others, have featured in proceedings before international criminal courts and tribunals. The arrest warrants issued by the ICC for Mahmoud Al-Werfalli, for example, are notable for their reliance on social media videos to support the charge of murder as a war crime. Developments at the national level are equally interesting. Sweden, Finland, Germany, and The Netherlands are among the countries that have turned to digital evidence to help prosecute war crimes committed in Syria and Iraq under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
New technologies not only provide access to new sources of information, but also offer new ways to analyse and process information for investigative and accountability purposes. Machine learning is set to help investigators work with large data sets, including managing the huge volume of information now accessible online. The automation of some information processing could make working with large data sets increasingly feasible. New technologies also allow investigators and other factfinders to harness the power of the crowd, as shown, for example, by Amnesty International’s Decoders project, which brings together thousands of digital volunteers from around the world to assist with particular investigations. In its work on Darfur, the project used this dispersed network of international volunteers to work through satellite images to identify remote villages in Darfur that were vulnerable to attack, and to establish the commission of crimes against humanity. Equally, organisations such as the Syrian Archive are creating mass digital archives, collating all available open source videos relating to the conflict in Syria, to create a historical record and facilitate accountability efforts.
As the use of digital technologies becomes an established part of atrocity investigation and accountability, it is necessary to consider the questions that this development poses for this field. This symposium intends to address this rapidly developing field as holistically as possible and is focused on understanding the impact that new technologies will have on legal investigation and accountability mechanisms more generally. A non-exhaustive list of fields of interest includes: international criminal proceedings; domestic prosecution of international crimes; the interplay between domestic and international investigators (e.g. the MH17 trial in the Netherlands) the work of international or regional accountability mechanisms, such as UN Commissions of Inquiry or the international mechanisms related to Syria or Myanmar; human rights-based proceedings at the national level, such as domestic Commissions of Inquiry or domestic human rights litigation; human rights-based proceedings at the regional level; or accountability pursued in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
We do not have any set definition of ‘new technologies’. We understand this to be a broad, and continually developing term, which includes: open source investigative methodologies; the use of machine learning techniques; the application of facial recognition software; algorithmically-assisted network analysis; the use of virtual reality and interactive platforms to recreate crime scenes; large-scale digital archiving; and remote sensing.
Key questions or topics that could be examined include, but are not limited to:
- Whether new technologies can assist in the investigation of atrocity crimes, and the risks inherent to such novel approaches;
- New technologies and the epistemologies (and methodologies) of human rights fact-finding;
- Whether investigators may perceive digital evidence as especially vulnerable to attack, and the impact of that perception on investigations and fact-finding;
- Whether new technologies introduce new forms of bias into investigations or accountability, and how this risk might be resolved;
- Whether new technologies may prioritise the investigation and documentation of particular crimes at the expense of others that may be less amenable to digital documentation;
- Whether new technologies may facilitate broader accountability for atrocity crimes by, for example, helping to investigate and document potential corporate involvement;
- Whether new technologies can democratise the publication and analysis of evidence on the basis, for example, of ‘crowdsourced’ investigation the risks and opportunities posed by crowdsourcing in this context;
- Whether the move towards digital evidence, accompanied by a rise in deep fake technology, is challenging trust in digital evidence, and in turn findings based on that evidence;
- Whether digital evidence is changing perceptions on the relative strength of traditional forms of evidence;
- How digital evidence, particularly online open source materials, is being litigated and judicially evaluated in various domestic jurisdictions – from collection, to processing, analysis and presentation in the courtroom;
- Whether atrocity investigations in the digital age require a new skill set for investigators;
- How best to ensure the safety and security of sources, investigators, and data when dealing with digital content and conducting digital investigations.
Murray, McDermott and Koenig’s article, ‘Mapping the Use of Open Source Research in UN Human Rights Investigations’ was published in the Journal of Human Rights Practice in 2022. Here is the abstract:
Open source information, particularly digital open source information that is publicly available on the internet, plays an increasingly central role in the landscape of human rights investigations. This article provides a thorough analysis of how open source information is used in practice by UN human rights fact-finding missions, commissions of inquiry and other official human rights investigations. Combining data from semi-structured interviews carried out with investigators with specific experience in open source human rights investigations with a review of reports and other primary and secondary sources, it examines the utility of open source information to UN human rights investigative bodies. It posits that open source research can offer tremendous benefits in planning investigations, supplying lead evidence, and providing direct evidence of violations, thereby overcoming some of the access barriers that investigators face, and potentially giving voice to a wider range of perspectives. On the other hand, this article argues that open source investigations should be approached with a clear eye to their challenges and possible pitfalls. These include the gaps of open source information and the potential to silence already-marginalized communities through open source investigations, as well as the resource-intensive nature of these investigations, the danger that open source information can affect witnesses’ perceptions, and the risks posed by online disinformation. As open source research is likely to comprise an important component of the human rights investigator’s toolbox in the future, this article argues in favour of the institutional buy-in, resourcing, and methodological rigour that it deserves.