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Jan. 22, 2013, 1:44 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Is it real? Witness builds an app to verify user-submitted content

The InformaCam app, which uses metadata to help authenticate videos and photos, is being developed with funding from the Knight News Challenge.

By now, it’s a familiar cycle: An amazing image is discovered — and then proven to be fake.

Whether it’s photos of flooding during Hurricane Sandy, or videos of eagles stealing babies, it’s not always easy to detect fakery. And when you think of the number of videos and photos produced by our phones each day, it can be problematic for news organizations trying to deal with submissions from readers.

The human rights organization Witness is developing a new app that aims to make it easier to verify the authenticity of video, photos, or audio created and shared from mobile devices. Witness is partnering with The Guardian Project to build the app with $320,000 in funding from Knight Foundation. The InformaCam app, one of several winners in the mobile round of the Knight News Challenge, would bring metadata to the forefront, allowing journalists, human rights organizations, and others to better identify the origins of a photo or video.

“InformaCam is our way to respond to this question of media authentication and model some solutions we hope people will adopt,” said Sam Gregory, program director for Witness.

Video is at the heart of what Witness does, encouraging people around the world to document human rights abuses in their community. (Witness also collaborated with The Guardian Project on a project that might be thought of as the flip side of InformaCam: ObscuraCam, a camera app that allows users to quickly conceal the identity of people in a photo by pixelating faces and removing metadata.)

The spread of smartphones and other devices with capable of shooting photos and videos has been a boon to human rights campaigns, but it’s also brought along new sets of problems. Whether someone is shooting video on the streets of Syria, Burma, or Libya, the question remains: Is it real? It’s a concern groups like Witness share with many media organizations that now rely on submitted video to amplify their journalism.

An alpha of the app is currently available for Android. InformaCam works like the camera software now available on most phones, allowing users to shoot photos or video within the app. But as you shoot, the app collects metadata that it will bundle and encrypt with your photo or video — including generating an encryption key based on the camera’s pattern of sensor noise, which is unique to each camera. At the moment they’re still three to six months away from a pilot, Gregory told me.

Gregory told me the InformaCam app creates a kind of watermark for video or photo content coming from a device and pair that with time, location, and other types of metadata. Most smartphones already contain plenty of identifying information that people collect throughout their day. InformaCam taps into the passive sensors in your phone to provide backing data for photos.

“The first part of the Knight grant will help us work out how InformaCam addresses the challenges of how do you gather as much contextualizing data about a photo or video,” he said.

Unlocking those sensors is one half of the problem — the other is creating methods to confirm metadata and establish a kind of chain-of-custody for a video. In other words, how can you create a system to show whether someone — whether a government censor or another interested party — tampered with a video after it was shot?

With upheaval in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia in recent years, raw video produced on mobile phones has become a way for citizens to share what is happening on the streets of their community. But Gregory said InformaCam has a wide range of potential uses outside of covering protests or potential war crimes — everything from shooting a natural disasters to documenting household damage for insurance claims.

The important thing to keep in mind, Gregory said, is that the software will not be a perfect solution. InformaCam, he said, should be used in the context of other information to make a judgment. “It won’t prove everything is true,” he said. “But, given the volume of media, you can make it easier for people to distinguish what is verifiable and help step up that ladder.”

POSTED     Jan. 22, 2013, 1:44 p.m.
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