How Ukraine collects digital evidence of war crimes

Time has published an article about how the Ukrainian government collects information about war crimes with the help of digital tools. Smartphones of Ukrainians have turned into weapons that help the army to fight and record atrocities of the Russian troops. AIN.Capital shares an excerpt from the piece. 

Tools that help to collect the information

The chatbot e-Enemy partly looks like a mobile game. You have to tag the location of the enemies and get rewards in the form of emoji. e-Enemy has become an assistant on the battlefield. The Ukrainian army receives messages from the chatbot, and they help perform successful attacks on the positions of Russian soldiers. It was developed by Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, and it is just one of several tools created by the government to crowdsource and verify war crimes.

Since the invasion began, Ukrainian officials, lawyers, and human rights groups have tried to develop new ways to verify videos, photos, and eyewitness testimonies. Ukraine has adapted government applications to allow citizens to document damage to their homes or recognize people’s faces.

According to the experts, this experience by Ukrainians is unlike any in the history of modern warfare. Crowdsourcing of evidence of war crimes has been done in other conflicts, but “the use of open-source information as evidence in the case of Ukraine may be at altogether a different level,” says Nadia Volkova, director of the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group.

Apps, chatbots, and websites developed by Ukrainian officials classify different types of war crimes and human rights violations. They are then entered into a single centralized database created by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General. These crimes include killing or injuring civilians, physical violence or imprisonment, denial of medical care, looting, and property theft by the occupiers.

The website of the Prosecutor General’s Office has already received more than 10,000 pieces of evidence from citizens. What all this will yield is still unclear. International war crimes cases are difficult to investigate. However, Ukrainian officials say that the evidence of Russian atrocities goes far beyond the trial in The Hague.

Ukraine also see this evidence as a defense against Russian disinformation. For example, against Kremlin claims that the murders in Bucha or Mariupol are “fake” or staged.

Image credit: Pierre Crom—Getty Images

How it works

A few weeks after the start of the full-scale invasion, a Russian military convoy passed near Kherson. As they crossed an intersection, employees of the Ministry of Digital Transformation in Kyiv watched as e-Enemy received dozens of photos and videos from residents’ windows. The government monitors the chatbot around the clock.

“Almost every apartment sent us a report. So we could geolocate them to almost every apartment on those two streets,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Minister of Digital Transformation, says.

More than 253,000 people have sent footage of movements and reports of the actions of Russian troops through the chatbot, according to the Ministry of Digital Transformation. Over 66,000 people have submitted evidence of damage to their homes and towns.

Many Ukrainian prosecutors now working on war crimes investigations had previously been trained in the using of open-source data. “So we have experience with this kind of evidence, and we’ve focused all the forces of our prosecutors on the war crimes claims. We need to operate really quickly to store all the evidence from the beginning if we want to use it in different courts,” said Serhiy Kropyva, a digital adviser to the Prosecutor General.

According to Kropyva, the government has promoted the site through television interviews, billboards, and Internet ads, encouraging Ukrainians to report any violations. The government’s war crimes dashboard lists about 6,500 photos, videos, and other documentation. The “crimes against children” section alone lists at least 191 children killed and 349 wounded. The site offers 18 detailed categories, including sexual violence, torture, death, and hostage-taking.

There is also a section called “Enemy’s personal data.” It allows users to provide any information about the Russian forces: documents, passports, call signs and pseudonyms, identification marks. As of April 14, 570 “suspects” were identified, including Russian military and political officials, ministers, and heads of law-enforcement agencies.

Image: Ministry of Digital Transformation

The need to record war crimes has led Fedorov and other officials to ask social media companies to review some of their rules, like removing content that might document eyewitness accounts of war crimes for breaking the rules.

“The community guidelines were made in peaceful countries to account for normal, everyday communication going on in peacetime. Some content which might not be permissible in peacetime could be instrumental to proving war crimes,” says Mykhailo Fedorov.

Ukrainian officials are trying to create a comprehensive body of digital evidence collected in a modern war. When asked if the minister believes in these efforts, Fedorov has no doubt. “We have satellite imagery, we have the verified content from our apps, we have other sources that I’m not at liberty to disclose…I am very sure it will help us prove our case in international jurisdictions.”