How Ukraine Is Crowdsourcing Digital Evidence of War Crimes
YouIt all seems like fun at first glance. Verified users of Ukraine’s government mobile app are greeted with options illustrated by icons of military helmets and targets. You will be prompted to report Russian troops in your vicinity. The automated prompt rewards you with a “flexed-arm” emoji. “Remember,” the message says. “Each of your shots in this bot means one less enemy.” Another option on the menu, illustrated by a droplet of blood, prompts Ukrainians to report and submit footage of war crimes in places now associated with horrific atrocities: Bucha, Irpin, Gostomel.
This chatbot, created by Ukraine’s Digital Ministry and dubbed “e-Enemy,” is one of half a dozen digital tools the government has set up to crowdsource and corroborate evidence of alleged war crimes. Ukrainian authorities, lawyers, and human rights groups have worked hard to create new tools to verify and catalogue reams upon a flood of eyewitness, video and photo accounts detailing the criminal actions of Russian troops since the invasion. Ukraine has used popular government apps to permit citizens to report damage to their houses. It also uses facial recognition software to identify Russian military officers in photographs. In the hope that it will help authorities to hold those responsible accountable, new tools have been developed to assist users in the geo-tagging, time stamping, and other processes.
Experts claim that the outcome is unprecedented in modern warfare history. Crowdsourcing digital proof of war crimes from witnesses 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 and a member an alliance of Ukrainian human-rights organizations called the 5AM coalition. The group was named for its involvement in documenting eyewitness testimony and to preserve, verify and collect evidence according to international protocols. The goal is not only to achieve justice for the victims, Volkova says, “but also contribute to the development of international law and the use of open-source information as evidence in complex cases.”
The apps, chatbots and websites designed by Ukrainian officials categorize different kinds of war crimes and human-rights violations and all feed into one centralized database set up by the office of Ukraine’s Prosecutor General. This includes the murder or injury to civilians by Russians; physical violence, imprisonment; denial or treatment of medical care; looting or seizing of property by occupying force. The system prompts verified users to report violence towards clergy and medical staff; civil infrastructure damage; or the use military equipment in residential areas. Reports from chatbots like “e-Enemy” are also shared with the military, and have led Ukrainian forces to mount successful attacks on Russian positions, according to Ukraine’s Security Service.
Ukrainians support the cause. A website set up by the office of Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, warcrimes.gov.ua, has received more than 10,000 submissions of detailed evidence from citizens, an official told TIME. The government’s efforts are supported by a legion of outside human-rights groups, citizen sleuths, cyber-volunteers, retired military officials, journalists, and open-source analysts with experience documenting this kind of proof in previous conflicts.
It is not clear what all of this will result in. The prosecution of international war crime cases is not an easy task. Most successful efforts are built upon traditional forensic evidence and witness testimony, documents and other supporting documentation. However, Ukrainian officials claim the digital tool is not just for crowdsourcing evidence on Russian atrocities. They see it as a defense against a flood of Russian disinformation, including claims from high-ranking Kremlin officials that the horrors from Bucha or Mariupol are “fake” or staged. It will be a historic record, which will hold those responsible accountable for their crimes and allow them to compensate the victims.
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, says the country’s collection and use of so-called “citizen evidence” is another way that Ukraine is reinventing modern warfare. “This war has been the most radical shift in warfare since WWII, at least in Europe,” Fedorov tells TIME. “If you look at what happened in cyber war, we have changed the playbook basically overnight…I firmly believe that we will be able to change the way international justice is being administered as well in the aftermath of this war.”
Outside a Kyiv residence, a soldier from Ukraine uses his phone to communicate with the authorities.
Pierre Crom—Getty Images
The digital evidence that the Ukrainians have been collecting
A Russian column of armored vehicles carrying missile launchers and rumbled through an area near Kherson in south Ukraine just weeks before the start of war. As it rolled past an intersection, staff at Ukraine’s digital ministry back in Kyiv watched as the “e-Enemy” chatbot, which is monitored 24/7, lit up with dozens of reports from residents’ windows block by block. “Almost every apartment sent us a report,” Fedorov recalls. “So we could geolocate them to almost every apartment on those two streets.”
Since the beginning of the invasion, Fedorov’s ministry has encouraged citizens to see the government apps on their phones as essential wartime tools. They can be used by Ukrainians for anything, from reporting on Russian actions to applying for relocation money. But government officials quickly realized that their pre-war project to digitize the country’s government services—passport applications, registering newborns—had now become an invaluable tool for documenting war crimes. They had created apps that gave millions of Ukrainians access to government services and the military via their phones. It also verified their identity automatically.
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Users must login through a portal created in 2020 to allow Ukrainians to access digital identifier documents from their phones to make e-Enemy chatbot reports. More than 17 million Ukrainians—roughly 40% of the population—uses the app, according to Fedorov. “We use rigorous authentication in order to weed out fake content, so we know who the person behind the report is,” he says.
TIME shared an example interaction that used emojis to guide users through a series if automated prompts. They first made sure the user was safe and then instructed them to concentrate their camera on enemies actions. After this, they were asked to shoot video up to one minute and attach a time stamp and geolocation. “It corrals you towards doing the right things, so it will require several photos from certain angles and so forth,” Fedorov says. “As a result, about 80% to 90% of the user-submitted content is usable by us and by our authorities.”
More than 253,000 people have sent reports and footage of Russian forces’ movements and actions through the chatbot, according to digital ministry officials. Over 66,000 individuals have provided evidence of damages to their houses and cities. A state service has begun cataloguing the data for possible future reparations. Each individual is linked to their verified location and identity, which creates an information stream that feeds into a central database managed by the Office for the Prosecutor general to confirm war crime reports.
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Many Ukrainian prosecutors now working on war-crimes investigations had previously been trained in using open-source intelligence, or OSINT, in human-rights cases following Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, says Serhiy Kropyva, a digital adviser to the Prosecutor General. “So we have experience with this kind of evidence, and we’ve focused all the forces of our prosecutors on the war crimes claims,” Kropyva tells TIME. “It’s still really hard, and all of us understand we need to operate really quickly to store all the evidence from the beginning if we want to use [it] in different courts.”
The dashboard on the government’s war crimes portal lists almost 6,500 submissions of photos, videos, and other documentation. One graphic on “crimes against children” counts at least 191 children killed and 349 wounded. The Prosecutor General’s office has advertised the site through television interviews as well as billboards and digital banners, Kropvya says, encouraging Ukrainians to report any violations.
The interface is simple and allows you to post your current location, show coordinates, download files, as well as submit a link on Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and other social networks. You can choose from 18 categories including: sexual violence, murder, torture, hostage taking and types of weapons.
Another section is labeled “Enemy’s personal data,” allowing the user to provide any identifying information about Russian troops, including “documents, passports, call signs and pseudonyms, identification marks.” As of April 14, the office said it has identified 570 “suspects,” including Russian military and political officials, ministers, and heads of law enforcement.
They will need to be held accountable. This is a difficult process. It is possible to hold them accountable even though Ukraine doesn’t belong the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body which has been investigating war crimes for over 20 years. However, they have given jurisdiction to bring charges against war crimes that were committed within their territory. The ICC stated last month it is opening an inquiry and collecting evidence. However, it has struggled with handling the flood of digital evidence. Karim Khan, the top prosecutor of Pakistan, requested new technology funding. “Conflicts and international crises now generate audio, visual and documentary records on a massive scale,” he said in a statement on March 28. “The commission of international crimes leaves a significant digital footprint.”
Many countries have also sent fact-finding teams, while the U.N. Human Rights Council established an investigation commission. This is supported by an array of international human rights analysts as well as organizations using OSINT (including satellite imagery and weapons analysis) to support these efforts.
The use of OSINT for war crimes documentation is not new. However, the widely adopted Berkeley Protocol, which was the first set global guidelines to establish standards for gathering public digital information including social media as evidence of violations of human rights, has markedly changed the landscape. Following a three-year partnership between the U.N. Office of Human Rights at Berkeley and the Human Rights Center of the University of California, Berkeley on the basis of lessons from the war in Syria, the protocol was published in 2020.
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TIME interviewed most Ukrainian groups that said they used the Berkeley Protocol to help them determine how to preserve and document evidence. They also received ethical and legal guidance on gathering eyewitness reports. These organizations, as well as the Ukrainian government could collect more evidence that meets international legal standards. Experts agree that it is important to pay attention to documentation that can be used in identifying the parties and communicates that may help establish intent.
“Trying war criminals is incredibly difficult because the burden of proof is so high,” says Flynn Coleman, an international human-rights lawyer who has focused on digital war-crimes documentation. “The technology often moves faster than the laws…But there are indications that the legal system is moving toward accepting more of this citizen evidence.”
Still, the value of Ukraine’s crowdsourced evidence goes beyond what can be proven in international court. “It’s a basic right for all the survivors and families,” Coleman says. “We need a record for humanity of what happened here: not just justice, but a record, because memories fade. And we need to do it now, while recollections are fresh.”
Fedorov, along with other officials, have asked social-media firms to review their practices. For example: pulling down any content which might be eyewitness accounts for war crimes in violation of the rules.
“The community guidelines were made in peaceful countries to account for normal, everyday communication going on in peacetime,” says Fedorov, who said he has recently asked companies like Meta to revise these guidelines for countries that are in an active state of war. “Some content which might not be permissible in peacetime could be instrumental to proving war crimes.”
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, is “exploring ways to preserve this type and other types of content when we remove it” when it comes to the war in Ukraine, spokesman Andy Stone said on April 4. TIME did not get any further details from Stone.
Ukrainian officials say they’ll continue ramping up their efforts to create the most comprehensive body of digital evidence ever assembled in a modern war. Fedorov doesn’t hesitate to answer if these efforts are going to be successful. “One hundred percent,” he tells TIME. “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.”
For now, that promise is repeated every time a Ukrainian citizen uses the “e-Enemy” app to provide information about the actions of Russian forces. With every new crowdsourced report, a message pops up in the app: “Their relatives, friends and the whole world will learn about their brutal crimes against the Ukrainian people.”
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