Exclusive: Crypto-Based Dossier Could Help Prove Russia Committed War Crimes


international law prohibits intentional attacks on educational institutions. That means the photo could serve as evidence of a potential war crime, according to Starling Lab, a research center affiliated with Stanford University and the USC Shoah Foundation.

Starling’s dossier is not a typical exhibit. Instead, the group’s submission will contain publicly available online information that has been curated and verified using blockchain technology. behind cryptocurrencies, in what he says is the first submission of such evidence to a court.

“We believe the use of this technology is particularly appropriate and powerful in this scenario,” Jonathan Dotan, founding director of Starling, told CNN Business.

The goal, Dotan said, is to create additional “layers of trust.” The blockchain is a ledger of data distributed over a network of computers, which makes it more difficult to hack or manipulate. By leveraging this and other encryption technologies, Starling is able to prove that information has not been manipulated and ensure that it will not disappear if, for example, a tweet has been deleted or if a cloud database went bankrupt.

The invasion of Ukraine has produced mountains of valuable online information that could be of interest to prosecutors, thanks to the ubiquity of cellphones. This presents an opportunity and a challenge, given the lack of protocols to preserve digital evidence.

Moscow has denied targeting civilians, but a CNN investigation found that 13 of 16 sites in Kharkiv confirmed to have been hit by Russian missiles in the first week of March were schools, apartment buildings and shops .

“This is the first conflict where so much of this social media evidence seems poised to play a role,” said Andrew Clapham, professor of international law at the University Institute of Geneva and an expert in human rights law. ‘man.

Misinformation and disinformation also make it harder to sort out what’s real online and what’s not, as bad actors try to obscure the historical record. This is where the crypto world can help, according to Dotan.

“As events continue to change on the ground, as knowledge networks expand, it is very important to use these tools to secure this information,” he said.

Documenting war crimes

The Dotan team has previously used its blockchain expertise to preserve Holocaust testimonies and to document evidence of war crimes in northwestern Syria. But they quickly pivoted when the war in Ukraine broke out.

Partnering with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and Hala Systems, which is developing technology to protect civilians, they decided to focus on two weeks of attacks on Kharkiv in March, and look specifically to what seems to have been deliberate attacks on schools.

The communication details five attacks on educational institutions that took place between March 2 and March 16.

“There is a very clear strategy behind attacking education and using it as a weapon of war,” said Ashley Jordana, associate director of accountability at Hala Systems. She worked with Starling to prepare the submission to the ICC.

“The idea behind this is that if you attack a building dedicated to an institution, you are not only attacking the child per se – and their well-being, development and mental health – but by proxy you are creating a type of insecurity that has a truly destructive impact on a country’s overall social and economic growth.”

To begin, the team began searching for open-source information that could help prosecutors build a case that the Russian military had committed war crimes. When they came across a relevant Telegram message or tweet, Starling researchers used encryption technology to capture, store and verify each piece of evidence.

The goal: to prove exactly when they had custody of the information, and to create a way to demonstrate, over time, that it has not undergone any alteration.

How it works?

First, they archived the post and its metadata, such as author, date it was created, and number of times it was viewed. They also captured the surrounding site context and user profile. Then they used cryptography to create unique fingerprints, or “hashes,” that would change if the underlying information was changed.

The fingerprint and metadata were then recorded on multiple blockchains. This performs a similar function to when a notary confirms that someone was in possession of a legal document.

Next, the team focused on storage. The files were uploaded to two decentralized storage networks, Filecoin and Storj. The information was then cached through various nodes around the world, instead of being housed in a single system, like Amazon’s cloud.

After that, Starling and its partners independently verified the information — verifying the source, diving into the post’s metadata, using geotagging tools to confirm the authenticity of the photos, and seeking corroborating evidence from organizations such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

These search methods are similar to those used by journalists when browsing documents online. CNN’s March investigation included details of one of the attacks included in Starling’s submission.

This corroborating material was then linked to the other files that had been uploaded to multiple blockchains, creating a chain of evidence that was verified and protected against tampering.

“We don’t just provide a series of links to investigators,” Dotan said.

Starling’s method could also be useful as misinformation swirls. In the group’s communication, he noted that a “pro-Russian online source” was trying to reframe the narrative around one of the attacks on the school.

What happens next?

It will be up to the ICC to know whether the evidence presented by Starling Lab is included in any case it presents.

One consideration for the court will be that it cannot try people in absentia, said Clapham of the University Institute of Geneva. This means that the prosecutor is only likely to prosecute people who have gone to court in The Hague, and will prioritize relevant evidence in these cases.

But Dotan and Jordana hope the ICC will be receptive to their methodology.

In the ICC’s strategic plan for 2016 to 2018, he said he was looking to develop strategic partnerships with non-governmental organizations and academic institutions that could “support the identification, collection and presentation of evidence through technology”.

“Ten years from now, when everyone has forgotten this and you have to go back to that day in March when a bomb was dropped on a school, you now have a network of acquaintances that can cryptographically prove that every stage – when you capture, store and verify – was guaranteed by some form of technology,” Dotan said.

The ICC has also telegraphed its intention to speed up work on cases involving children.

More work will need to be done by prosecutors to prove other elements of the alleged crimes detailed by Starling Lab, including assembling additional evidence about the perpetrators of the attacks and their intent, said Kelly Matheson, a human rights attorney. man and former director of Witness’s Video as Evidence program.

Even so, she said the methods used by Starling are “an extremely useful tool to ensure that incoming information is verified to legal standards and usable by the court.”


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