US plan to document war crimes in Ukraine

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US government stated that it would fund the collection of data on the conflict in Ukraine, which, in addition to laying the groundwork for the prosecution of war crimeswill share critical real-time data with humanitarian organizations.

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The newly established Conflict Observatory will use Open Source Investigation (OSINT) and satellite imagery to monitor the conflict in Ukraine and collect evidence of possible war crimes. Outside organizations and international investigators will be able to access the resulting database, a US State Department spokesman confirmed in an email.

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Conflict Observatory partners include the Yale Humanities Research Lab, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, artificial intelligence company PlanetScape Ai, and Esri, a geographic information systems company, according to the State Department. [press release]( The observatory will have access to commercial satellite data and US government imagery, “allowing civil society groups to move at a faster pace, closer to the speed once reserved for US intelligence,” says Nathaniel Raymond, an instructor at the Jackson School. Global Relations at Yale University and co-director of the Humanities Research Laboratory.

Raymond himself is not the first time using technology to investigate conflicts and crises. More than ten years ago he was COO Project “Satellite Guard”founded by actor George Clooney, which used satellite imagery to monitor the conflict in South Sudan, and documented human rights violations. This was the first initiative of its kind, but it would have been too costly and resource intensive for other organizations to replicate.

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“This kind of work is very labor intensive,” says Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of California, Berkeley Law School. “I think that in terms of money and opportunity, we are at a point where many of these organizations really need to think about the information environment they operate in. Information from open sources can be invaluable at the preliminary investigation stage, as you are planning either humanitarian assistance or a legal investigation.”

No data that the observatory will use and distribute is secret; satellite imagery will be taken from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). commercial contracts with private companies. But having access to many types of data in one place, rather than scattered across many different entities, and being able to parse them would make it powerful. While the observatory will use public data, Raymond said it does not plan to make its data public, unlike many other humanitarian projects.

“The level of detail and how quickly image data can be collected in some cases means it can be useful for those who want to target civilians and protected infrastructure such as hospitals and shelters,” he says. .

Raymond is especially knowledgeable about these risks. While at the Satellite Sentinel, a report released by the group led, he believes, to kidnapping a group of Chinese road workers of the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM-North). Although the image was de-identified by removing the longitude and latitude, Raymond says locals could recognize the area and determine where the road crew was.

In March, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT), an open source project that works with humanitarian groups around the world, using maps to help them deliver aid. has stopped all updates for Ukraine in the OpenStreetMap (OSM) open source mapping tool. The decision came after the Ukrainian mapping community expressed concern that the map updates would only serve to aid the invading Russian forces. But it also meant that critical information could no longer be made available to outside aid organizations. (HOT continues to add locations outside of Ukraine to the map to help Ukrainian refugees find services in neighboring countries.)

“Humanitarian cards are for people who are outside the region. The locals know the roads,” says Ivan Gayton, Senior Humanitarian Advisor at Humanarian OpenStreetMap (HOT). Gayton says HOT errs on the side of transparency and openness when it comes to information, but the conflict in Ukraine presents a unique situation in which information asymmetries between invading Russian troops and Ukrainian locals serve to protect civilians.

Koenig says that by working on a closed network, aid and human rights organizations will hopefully be able to gather the information they need without putting civilians at risk.

“When you crowdsource information, when you do it in front of everyone in public places, there is a commendable degree of transparency,” Koenig says. “But one person’s transparency can be a target for another person. I think we talked about how these should be closed networks of trusted partners so that the exchange of information happens quickly.”

Exactly how data sharing between multiple groups will work remains unclear. In one of his first reportsAnalyzing the systematic shelling of Ukrainian hospitals by the Russian military, the authors noted that only part of the information would be released to the public and that certain aid and human rights groups received full data “as needed”. A US State Department spokesman told WIRED that they “cannot detail how this will interact with other processes already running” as the program has just been launched.

Humanitarian organizations in particular have historically struggled with data security. Earlier this year, the International Committee of the Red Cross came under attack. hack it compromised the data of over half a million people, despite having some of the most sophisticated data protections and policies in the industry. And Gayton fears that any organization with large amounts of data could become a target for future hackers.

“If a [an organization] think they can protect all this data from the country with the strongest cyber warfare unit on the planet, they dream,” says Gayton.

However, Raymond believes that the conflict in Ukraine provides a unique opportunity to gather evidence of war crimes like never before, despite the unique dangers it poses. “In the case of Ukraine, the level of data available, the level of detail of that data, is unprecedented in terms of today’s large-scale battlefield.”


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