Trustless Evidence: Web 3 Is Helping Document War Crimes in Ukraine

In an era of misinformation, blockchain technology can renew our faith in evidential truth, not least during the current conflict in Ukraine, says Jonathan Dotan, the founding director of The Starling Lab.

AccessTimeIconJun 2, 2022 at 9:13 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 4:14 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconJun 2, 2022 at 9:13 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 4:14 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconJun 2, 2022 at 9:13 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 4:14 p.m. UTC

Each day millions of smartphone cameras have given us a view into the terror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Within minutes, ordinary citizens are uploading via social media and messaging apps grim images and videos that galvanize calls for accountability of the perpetrators of apparent war crimes.

However compelling and unequivocal they appear to be, these records are not guaranteed to be admissible in court.

Jonathan Dotan will appear on the "Big Ideas" stage at the Consensus festival on June 10, 2022.

The journey these digital bits take from the camera lens to presentation before a judge is complex, lengthy and often fraught with risks. The tools to manipulate digital media are easy to use and as ubiquitous as the devices used to capture them.

With the erosion of trust in digital media in our era of "fake news," the judicial process is not immune to the existential problems facing the internet. Our rightful mistrust of digital platforms has placed digital evidence on shaky ground. Often, we no longer believe what we see. Bad actors have weaponized our skepticism. It is a pernicious end-game of a decade-long cyberwar.

The need to reset digital trust is clear. The good news is that a viable solution is also coming into focus with the arrival of mature Web 3 technologies.

Far from the hype and controversies that pervade the crypto world, we look at the maturation of tools like blockchains and distributed ledgers as an opportunity to establish a new technical, normative and legal understanding of digital integrity.

Documentation of war crimes in Ukraine makes plain how these kind of Web 3 technologies can help establish an unalterable chain of custody by preserving provenance and privacy.

Using these open-source tools and best practices, our team at the Starling Lab has developed a framework to securely capture, store and verify digital content to meet the technical and ethical challenges of establishing trust in digital records coming out of Ukraine.

Our new workflows seamlessly integrate L1 and L2 protocols, NFTs and secure hardware wallets to create an end-to-end and immutable Web 3 solution that can preserve digital evidence. These elements are, in essence, the new building blocks of digital authenticity. Combined, they are a powerful example of how Web 3 empowers end-users to compose solutions across new secure digital protocols.

While the underlying technology supporting it is complex, the framework is simple in its objectives:

  • Capture – Register and seal digital content and its metadata at the point of capture.
  • Store – Govern content via cryptography and preserve it on decentralized networks.
  • Verify – Record the attestations of experts who evaluate and audit content

Our solution has already started cryptographically authenticating and preserving thousands of records of open-source intelligence from messenger apps, social media and websites that document war crimes as well as create immutable records of fact-checkers’ analyses.

By providing an interface to this next generation of technology we hope to help the courts address challenges to admitting evidence amidst fierce cyberwar and also get ahead of emerging digital threats.

To be sure, there is much work still to be done. The courts acknowledge that they need help. The project of accountability in Ukraine requires a mix of rapid action and also patience as justice will likely wind across many venues and last decades.

Making this kind of long-term commitment to accountability requires us to face up to many challenges, but also forecast those least understood on the technical frontier. We believe that all stakeholders will rise to meet the challenge here, moving their own roadmaps faster, and helping push the courts to modernize out-of-date protocols.

This is a rare moment in which cutting-edge technologies and methods can be newly understood and safely adopted as enduring solutions for accountability in our digital age in Ukraine – and beyond.

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Jonathan Dotan

Jonathan Dotan is the founding director of The Starling Lab where he leads applied research on the decentralized web and human rights. He is a fellow at the Stanford Compression Forum and Stanford’s Center for Blockchain Research, as well as an innovation fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation.