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The SecureSmartCam Project: Protecting Human Rights

The SecureSmartCam project, a collaboration of WITNESS and the Guardian Project, aims to design and develop a new type of smartphone camera app that respects the visual privacy, anonymity and consent of the subjects they photograph or record. It’s designed for capturing images in politically sensitive situations where preserving the anonymity of subjects is a serious consideration.

The SecureSmartCam project recently crossed a major milestone with the beta release of the ObscuraCam app for Android, which automatically pixelates the faces of subjects captured by the app.

The SecureSmartCam project was developed in part at OVC 2010, and in association with WITNESS, the project will be returning to this year’s Open Video Conference.

We sat down with Bryan Nunez, Technology Manager at WITNESS, to discuss the project.

Q. What is the plan for getting this technology deployed?

We’ve been very open and transparent about the development of the technology from the outset of the project. We’re using open source tools such as Android, OpenCV, and using GitHub to publicly manage the code. So all the source code and builds have been available to the public.

In addition to GitHub we’re also distributing the app via the Android Market. We plan to distribute the app to our human rights partners through trainings as well.

Q. How does the SecureSmartCam idea fit in with other things happening at Witness?

SecureSmartCam is part of larger initiative we’ve started called, “Cameras Everywhere.” Essentially we recognize that video is becoming more accessible and more ubiquitous both in terms of technology and distribution channels. This flood of video represents more opportunities to expose human rights abuse, but as more people
post videos online, there’s also more potential that people might be endangered if they’re not aware of the possible risks.

We hope to enable an environment where people can use video for human rights in a safer and more effective way, by working with technology developers and providers as well building tools such as the SSC.

Bryan Nunez, WITNESS (CC Image courtesy of Joichi Ito)


Q. This year’s SecureSmartCam session continues some work that began during last year’s OVC. Tell us more.

Although WITNESS and the Guardian Project have been talking about collaborating for awhile now, we really kicked off our formal collaboration at the 2010 OVC. Last year’s conference was made up of three parts, the first being a discussion of the problems and risks of having human rights video online, the second a brainstorming workshop around how to address these issues, and finally a hack day in which we actually sat down and built a rough prototype of a facial recognition app on an Android phone.

This year we hope to showcase the work that’s been done over the past year. The risks we discussed last year haven’t gone away and have only been highlighted further with the videos that have come out of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. We’d like to continue this discussion and re-check our assumptions as well as get feedback from the OVC community that will help us as we continue development.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish?

We hope we’ll have made some significant progress on the app and that we’ll be able to have people test it out. We’d also like to continue the dialog we started at the 2010 OVC.

Q. What are some challenges you’re expecting?

Right now the ObscuraCam only works on stills. Video may be difficult, but we’re optimistic.

Q. What are the ultimate wishes for this project? Where would you like to see it in
two years time?

Ultimately we hope that the work we do with the SecureSmartCam project is adopted by more people, that the concepts of visual privacy, informed consent, and basic human rights ideals are good for everyone and that this thinking finds its way into the design of technologies beyond SSC.

Bryan has told us that development of the next version of ObscuraCam is moving along and will be more robust with plans to feature options such as video support. The next version is tentatively entitled “InformaCam.”

6 Responses to “The SecureSmartCam Project: Protecting Human Rights”

  1. R says:

    I love the Guardian Project, but this is a laughably bad idea.

    This the opposite of progressive, this is grasping at straws. An incredibly short-sighted approach to privacy.

  2. Bryan Nunez says:

    Hi R,

    From the beginning we’ve tried to make the project as open as possible, and we definitely welcome any and all criticism and (hopefully) suggestions on how we can improve. Even if you think we’re completely off base, we’d really like to know why and what you think we should be doing instead.

    Our goal for this project is to protect human rights defenders and activists both in front of and behind the camera, which I hope is something we have in common. Ultimately we don’t care who develops this technology as long as it’s done well and in an open and accessible way.

    I look forward to hearing back from you and to hopefully learning more about how we should be approaching the project.

    Best,
    Bryan

    BTW, we are also fans of the OpenWatch project which was recently profiled by our friends at mobilemediatoolkit.org http://bit.ly/nx7nOy.

  3. R says:

    Hi Bryan! Thanks for your personal reply, and I’m sorry if my comment seemed a little snappy.

    Will your session at OVC be a presentation or a discussion?

    Maybe we could both present/discuss our different approaches to using technology/citizen media to promote rights/civil liberties.

    Of course, if you’re planning on giving a whole presentation then I don’t want to step on your toes, but I would be cool if I could somehow present the opposing viewpoint to the approach outlined here.

    Thanks!
    R

  4. Bryan Nunez says:

    Hi R,

    Sorry it took so long to get back to you. No problem on the snappiness, I’m happy the subject is getting a reaction, we welcome the discussion.

    On that note, we would like to talk to you about potentially being on one of the panels we’re organizing on visual privacy. Can you contact me at bryan[at]witness[dot]org so we can set up a time to talk?

    Thanks again for your input and for starting what I think will be an important conversation about citizen media, civil liberty, and personal safety.

    Best,
    Bryan

  5. Randy Strong says:

    How do you address talented video compositing experts who work for enemy groups to start assigning random faces on these videos through feathered masking techniques? All this work is useless unless you can create a watermarking on each clip that is encrypted to provide a code that is an accepted standard to decifer fake green screen propaganda from actual certifiable occurances.

    • jacob says:

      Thanks Randy. Hopefully the session will address some of the forensic aspects as well. Have there been documented cases where this type of sabotage has occurred? Not saying it it isn’t possible or hasn’t happened, but wondering how it’s been discovered and what kind of standards are already underway for combating this threat. Feel free to add documentation to the Session notes that will be kept here: http://openetherpad.org/ovc11-securesmartcam

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