All a blur: Making activist video safer
So often these days I find myself enclosed by the four padded walls of a video editing suite, working with a colleague to blur a video. It’s usually faces. But sometimes it is worse. Sometimes it is the bloody wounds of the dead or injured.
That is a reflection of the brutality of the Syrian conflict – because these days it is nearly always video from Syria that has come to us via YouTube.
Blurring a video can be a painstaking process, but it’s essential. Making sure a face is obscured in each and every frame of video can afford a shred of dignity to the dead. In itself, that is important. But more significantly, it can protect somebody’s identity and sometimes their life.
"Government forces have special teams dedicated to monitoring protests that we film and upload to the internet," says our Syrian blogger, Rafeeq.
"A lot of Homs residents have become scared of the camera… They know that a photo of them on the internet could result in several months of imprisonment and torture."
It can also mean death, for those both in front of and behind the camera. There are a number of videos on YouTube that prove that it can be lethal to film in Syrian cities that are often swarming with snipers.
"It’s pretty humbling to know that people are being killed for doing what, for most of us, is an act of free expression we take for granted – holding up your phone and pressing ‘record’," writes Storyful’s Markham Nolan.
With so many risks and such high stakes, journalists have a responsibility to protect the identities of those filming and being filmed, if they are able.
Of course, I am not the first to realise this. WITNESS has been "using the power of video and storytelling for 20 years to open the eyes of the world to human rights abuses." It has long been advocating a blur tool on video sharing sites.
So it is important that YouTube has now responded, releasing a face-blurring tool. It picks out facial features automatically and obscures them. Then it creates a blurred copy and gives you the option to delete the original. Finally, it publishes the video privately, so you can check if it's worked. The Hindu newspaper has a tutorial.
The innovation will no doubt need some refinements and improvements, but WITNESS and others have welcomed it. And we are already seeing activists in Syria take advantage of this feature. Videos of protests are now coming to us pre-blurred.
Blurring is not a perfect system. Details other than a person’s face might give away their identity, like their voice, their clothing or items in the background.
"A selective blur in terms of faces, and an option to use the blur on other types of distinguishing features, like license plates, distinctive objects in a room or a street sign, would be key improvements," says WITNESS’s Sam Gregory.
The NGO is now asking other video sites to offer a similar blur feature and is continuing to work with YouTube. The site has actually set up a "YouTube for Good" team which works to help what it calls non-profits, educators and activists.
"We also keep these three groups in mind when building more general tools," says spokesperson, Jessica Mason.
"For example, our live-streaming tool wasn't designed specifically for nonprofits, but we've adapted it for nonprofits because it is a useful tool for streaming conferences and fundraisers."
All of this should probably have been done a long time ago. It’s taken the likes of Wikileaks, as well as a coalition of charities and campaigners, to establish a place for whistleblowers and activists to get their message out.
They have now successfully lobbied YouTube to accommodate activists’ needs. Thanks to them, we now have various methods by which those who need to can get their message out quickly and directly.
But for some, it will never be possible to get videos and information out safely. Despite that, there is still more than can be done to make it less dangerous. Other groups are working to make activists’ use of video more secure.
The Guardian Project aims to allow people to create blurred video at source, avoiding the risks of carrying around an original which could be intercepted. The principle "is that you have control over your media", says Sam Gregory of WITNESS, "to share more information only with a third-party you trust, rather than publishing it to a public platform".
The Tor Project, which is blocked in Qatar, also looks at security in online and mobile communication. It provides software which makes your internet activity anonymous and more secure.
The Tactical Technology Collective also works to train people about the safe and secure use of information technology, or "info-activism" as they call it.
And there are other groups that focus on education. A collective of Arab digital security experts funded by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting is publishing a magazine called Cyber Arabs. It contains advice in Arabic on how to protect yourself. And Small World News offers security guides in English and Arabic.
The work of those groups to educate and equip activists, while lobbying businesses, is slowly carving out a space for information and video to get out securely.