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For Activists—and Manti Te'o—New Protection Against Internet Fakes
By Bernhard Warner
January 29, 2013 3:22 PM EST
Photograph by Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images Stateless Arabs, known as bidoon, snap photographs with iPhones as they march to demand citizenship rights in Jahra, Kuwait

In a very short period of time, smartphones and social media have become important mobilizing tools for international social movements. At the same time, they have created a trail of digital evidence for established governments trying to stamp out revolution.

There are at least 230 journalists and an additional 120 digital activists currently in prison around the world, often for having published videos or photos critical of the state. In some cases, the evidence against them has been faked—as much hoaxes as the photos of wayward sharks swimming the streets of the Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy.

To identify faked photos and video, developers working for advocacy groups Witness.org and the Guardian Project, have built Informacam, an app that collects and analyzes the metadata stored in digital photos and video. Users download the app to their phones, where it integrates with the cameras. Once installed, Informacam can identify where and when a photo was taken, and even the weather at the time.

“We collect more than twice the metadata of .JPEG,” says Nunez. “You actually get a trajectory of where the video or image was being taken at the time it was taken. It paints a digital environment of what was happening around you when you were filming, with a full chronology.”

Bryan Nunez, technology manager at Witness.org, sees Informacam providing important legal protections for everyday civilians, too. For example, through Informacam, each edit or outright alteration of an image is meticulously recorded, as well as time- and location-stamped—the kind of metadata details that could assist even the least-savvy digital investigator unravel a Catfish style hoax. That’s good news then, for the next Manti Te’o. “The key to widespread adoption of Informacam will be for the general public to use it in these kinds of situations,” he says.

Earlier this month the Knight Foundation, which funds innovative journalism and media projects, awarded the Informacam team a $320,000 grant, hailing the app as a breakthrough for news gathering. The money will cover remaining development costs. Informacam is available in beta for Android users. The full public version is expected to come out this summer, with an iOS version to follow.

The International Bar Association signed on to the project last spring. The IBA has called for the development of a new global standard for data collection on recorded media—one robust enough to be admissible in international war crimes cases, whose key evidence is increasingly citizen-shot reportage of oppressive government crackdowns.