Safely Document Protests and Human Rights Abuses with ObscuraCam

January 19, 2012

10:00 am

WITNESS, a nonprofit focused on documenting human rights abuses, has long been distributing cameras and training citizens to use them. But with cameras now available as software on smartphones, WITNESS has an opportunity to create a camera specifically designed to capture photos of human rights abuses, war crimes, and social justice issues.

The first version of that camera is called ObscuraCam, built with the help of The Guardian Project, which develops open-source software to increase mobile privacy and security, and with funding from Google and (in the future) the International Bar Association.

This open-source Android app helps protect the identity of subjects in human rights videos. ObscuraCam detects faces automatically (you can select any it misses) and then offers various options to obscure them, including blurring with pixels and erasing completely. The app also deletes metadata such as location and camera type. These features grew out of a conference session on mobile tools and human rights and a subsequent hack day that outlined early features.

Now, ObscuraCam is being privately tested by global news organizations and activist groups; WITNESS technology manager Bryan Nunez heard that Al Jazeera reporters used it to document Arab Spring protests. The camera not only protects privacy, but also helps prevent corrupt governments and extremists from using photos to identify their enemies.

But one difficulty for ObscuraCam developers is reducing friction for photo takers:

“The biggest challenge is usability and flow. How can pixelizing a face, or removing a sensitive portion of a video, be something that a user can learn to do while standing on a street, or in the midst of a large protest?” asks Nathan Freitas, founder of The Guardian Project.

Future incarnations of ObscuraCam are planned that work for video and include features like verifying informed consent from subjects. The next step in the project is InformaCam, which will help photographers capture as much information as possible and could be used in legal trials.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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