In September 2023, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Programme hosted the fourth edition of the Digital Verification Corps Summit in Berlin, Germany, in close collaboration with the Hertie School of Governance.
The Digital Verification Corps (DVC) is a network of six universities (University of California Berkeley, University of Cambridge, University of Essex, Universidad Iberoamericana, Hertie School of Governance, and University of Pretoria) that collaborate with Amnesty International by using technology for ground-breaking human rights research. The three-day summit brought together the partner universities as well as practitioners from around the world to foster collaboration in the field of digital investigation and enhance open-source research.
This year’s Summit featured a broad range of activities for participating students and colleagues from across the world of human rights, and was also open to the general public for one day. Students had the opportunity to meet with colleagues from Mnenomic and Forensic Architecture, two leading open-source human rights research organisations, to learn about their methods and novel investigative practices.
Zuzanna Wojciak, student coordinator at the University of Essex, described the summit as “an invaluable opportunity to engage with human right’s practitioners and become a part of the growing open-source research community”.
She said: “I especially enjoyed the discussions with OSINT investigators on ways in which open-source research can be incorporated into work of the civil society.”
“The DVC Summit, and the DVC programme as a whole, create an encouraging space for students to grow as human rights investigators”Zuzanna Wojciak
Sofia Schnurer, student at The University of California, Berkeley, added: “The professionals (…) were absolutely incredible and their work exhibits the kind of innovative research necessary to advance the human rights field.”
Workshops explored policy issues around Researching Surveillance and Spyware, showcased tools Using Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Open-Source Skills to Detect Explosive Ordnance, and focused on ways to document Death and Abuse on Migrant Routes drawing on a recent investigation into Ethiopian refugees at the borders of Saudi Arabia as a case study.
Monica Naime, a student coordinator from Universidad Iberoamericana, said that she “learnt how different set of skills come together in an open-source investigation”. She added that the workshops gave her a better understanding on “how to elevate an investigation with the knowledge of artificial intelligence and with digital forensic”.
Networking and skill-sharing
During two additional workshops concerning AI Tools and Our Ethics and The DVC: How We Work Together, students were able to discuss ethical challenges in relation to the rapid developments in open-source research. These workshops further served as networking and skill-sharing opportunities for the students as they were encouraged to collaborate on human rights issues in smaller groups.
Sofia Schnurer said: “The fellow student researchers brought their shared passion and skillset into the space, opening the door for all of us to collaborate and learn from each other.”
Finally, two panel discussions formed an integral part of the summit’s programme. Our colleagues at Amnesty International shared the panels with correspondents from The New York Times, Germany’s Der Spiegel and Unbias the News, as well as with legal data archivists from The Reckoning Project, academics from Cambridge University, and researchers from Forensic Architecture. The panels provided a platform for the wider community to critically engage with digital investigation processes in closed societies and learn about research techniques to investigate crimes rooted in colonialism, by gaining insights through numerous country case studies.
After the Summit’s conclusion, participants shared their insights and reflections, emphasizing the power of technology in documenting human right abuses and amplifying the call for justice.
Zuzanna Wojciak said that the Summit gave her “a clearer perspective on the investigative mindset” and provided motivation “to stay resilient on my decision to pursue a career in open-source research”.
Sofia Schnurer described the Summit as “an unforgettable experience I know cannot be replicated”.
The Digital Verification Corps
The DVC was established in 2016 to help train the next generation of human rights researchers in the tools and skills needed to take advantage of the overwhelming amount of digital content that exists in the world today.
In November 2019, the DVC won the Times Higher Education Award for International Collaboration of the Year. More than 100 students annually contribute to the human rights research of Amnesty International and its partners – from the reactive work on conflicts, to long-term projects exposing police violence globally, documenting air strikes causalities in Syria, and pushbacks at sea.
In 2023, DVC students contributed to Amnesty International’s research focusing on collective punishment in Afghanistan, war crimes in Sudan, and surveillance in Occupied Palestinian Territories. By verifying videos from protests, students directly supported Amnesty International’s global efforts to introduce the Torture-free Trade Treaty. Videos identified by students were also included in research focusing on the abuse of kinetic impact projectiles by law enforcement agencies, and the investigation into the trade of less-lethal equipment used to suppress dissent.