From biometric identification technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) to communications interception equipment and unmanned surveillance drones, modern nation states have a vast array of immensely powerful tools at their disposal thanks to the corporations they partner with to develop and deploy such technologies.
It is also well-documented that states and corporations alike routinely engage in technologically-enabled abuses of power.
Recent examples include the hacking of activists’, journalists’ and others’ phones by Israeli cyber surveillance firm NSO Group; the European Union (EU) using unvalidated predictive analytics and automated decision-making systems on refugees without their consent; the digital mass surveillance conducted by six African governments; and the disproportionate use of facial recognition technologies by UK police – with no clear legal basis.
“Technology is not neutral as it is a product of specific political and historical contexts,” says Nour Abuzaid, a researcher and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) liaison for Forensic Architecture (FA), an international, inter-disciplinary research agency that uses a range of digital technologies to investigate human rights violations committed by states and corporations around the world.
In challenging these abuses, FA has worked with a wide range of actors, from victims and grassroots activists, to lawyers and international media organisations.
Abuzaid adds the nation state in particular, with its “monopoly over the means of violence and production of truth”, will often deploy advanced technologies with little accountability or oversight.
“Part of our mandate [at FA] is to have this technology available for local communities and activists, and to use it to hold people in power accountable when they’ve committed violations of human rights,” she says.
“The term ‘forensics’ is always associated with police practices and the state. We refer to our practice as ‘counter forensics’, [which means] to use the tools that the state monopolises against the state itself. In today’s world, states and corporations are liable to abuse the technology at their disposal, and thus we choose not to work through them or at their service.”
Speaking with Computer Weekly, Abuzaid discusses how technology can be used to support – rather than undermine – fundamental human rights, and some of the investigations FA has conducted in recent years.
Counter-forensics for human rights
Established in 2010, Forensic Architecture works in the intersection between architecture, technology and human rights, using a wide range of digital tools – including open source intelligence, 3D modelling, photogrammetry, virtual reality (VR), data mining, audio analysis, and more – to analyse and challenge official accounts of state and corporate abuse.
Abuzaid says although FA’s practices are not traditional – “we don’t have to do architectural design, for example” – it employs the digital tools of the architectural profession to enrich its understanding of the physical space where a human rights incident has occurred so that an evidentiary basis can be built around the event.
Through 3D modelling, for example, FA can create a virtual space and cross-reference it with snippets from public domain material, such as human rights reports, news coverage and social media content, to create a full account of the event in question as it unfolded through time and space.
FA then takes the technical evidence it has gathered and uses it to challenge official narratives. Its work has been used by a range of lawyers and human rights-focused non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and has been presented before United Nations panels.
Abuzaid says a key aspect of FA’s investigative work is its collaborative, interdisciplinary nature, which is necessary due to the complexity of many of the cases it takes on.
“Working with collaborators is important because we don’t always have the manpower to go through all these incidents, so we make use of the research done by other organisations and we back it with our technological and spatial expertise,” she says.
“It’s [also] important to understand the political context because every case is different, and we end up learning from our collaborators, especially those at the front line of each struggle. We learn about the politics of the language they use and the challenges they face in evidencing violations of their rights.
“Engaging in research in different contexts enriches our practice. In many cases, we end up developing new research methodologies and tools to be able to investigate specific research questions,” says Abuzaid.
An example of a new methodology developed by FA is “situated testimony”, an interviewing technique that uses 3D reconstructions of scenes and environments where traumatic events occurred to help victims and survivors recall their memories, as part of the testimony gathering process.
Counter forensics in practice: pushbacks across the Evros/Meriç River
They attest this took place at night, in full secrecy, and without any attempt to grant them access to asylum procedures. Both Greek and European Union (EU) authorities denied any wrongdoing and refused to investigate the incidents.
Nour Abuzaid, Forensic Architecture
“One of the first cases was that of Ayşe Erdoğan, a Turkish political asylum seeker, who entered Greece via the Evros/Meriç river and was illegally detained in a police station, where she repeatedly attempted to apply for asylum. Subsequently, she was pushed back across the river to Turkey, where she was arrested and imprisoned by the Turkish authorities,” says Abuzaid.
“In many similar cases, migrants testify to being secretly detained, beaten and pushed back to the river, without being granted access to asylum procedures. During the pushback, many of their phones were confiscated or thrown in the river, leading to the loss of important evidence like location pins, images and videos that these migrants took to prove that they had reached Europe and were denied the right to seek asylum.”
Many of those detained were either held in unmarked police stations or detention centres located throughout the restricted buffer zone that runs along both sides of the river, she says, adding: “The existence of these stations is not always shared with the public…and many of them are located in a heavily militarised zone along the river, so journalists and human rights defenders can’t access them easily.”
Because their phones were destroyed in the process, Abuzaid says the migrants had no documentation or digital evidence of the violence they were subjected to, meaning the only evidence FA had access to was the memory of the witnesses.
As a result, FA started developing the situated testimony methodology, which involves an architect sitting down with the witness to digitally recreate the visual elements of the environment from their memory to help track their movements and figure out which buildings they were detained in.
Abuzaid says through using two different types of 3D modelling software, Rhino and Unity, alongside input from the witnesses, FA was able to reconstruct the unmarked buildings and place them on a map in their exact real-world locations.
“In the [situated testimony] process, seeing certain elements, like trees, for example, can trigger the memory of the witness to recall other details about the environment. These sessions can be intense because some of the experiences these refugees went through are traumatic. As such, they have the chance to stop or take a break at any point,” she says, adding that one of the witnesses interviewed had been pushed back a total of 13 times.
The killings of Muhammed al Arab and Muhammed Gulzar
On 2 March 2020, after several days of tension at the river crossing, violence escalated, with reports emerging of a fatal shooting. The victim was identified as Muhammad al Arab, a 22-year-old man from Aleppo, Syria. Greek authorities denounced the reports as “fake news” generated by Turkey.
On 3 March, a delegation of EU officials – including Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen – visited the region, and later issued a joint statement praising Greece “for being our European aspida [shield] in these times”.
Abuzaid says, in the wake of the al Arab’s death, Greek news channels were adamant that no killing had taken place: “They denied any killing or use of live ammunition at the border area and claimed this was Turkish propaganda.”
Because FA had already been working to document the pushbacks taking place in the region, it was able to geolocate where and when exactly the incident happened from footage and testimonies of witnesses on the ground at the time, undermining the official narrative.
However, on 4 March, a day after EU officials visited, another shooting occurred, this time injuring seven and taking the life of Muhammad Gulzar, a Pakistani citizen who until recently had lived in Greece.
Again, Abuzaid says Greek officials denied both the use of live ammunition and the killing itself. Working with Bellingcat and Lighthouse reports – two investigative, public interest news organistions – she says FA went through more than 100 videos taken by refugees, from which they were able to identify Gulzar by his clothes.
“Because most of these refugees never made it to the Greek side, they still had their phones with them…so we had over 100 videos that we cross-referenced to construct the scene,” she says.
“We managed, eventually, to identify Gulzar in one of the videos and confirm the location of his killing. Based on the medical report and the bullet retrieved from his body, we examined the other videos in search of personnel carrying rifles compatible with the bullet. We only found these rifles in the possession of the Greek soldiers at the border.”
This was done through a mixture of techniques, such as the use of high-resolution satellite imagery that captured the state of vegetation, which was cross-referenced with the footage taken by refugees to pinpoint the exact locations of where victims were injured or, in the case of Gulzar, killed.
Using specific events in the footage, such as bursts of gunfire, FA was also able to synchronise the various videos and create a continuous timeline of events.
The footage was also cross-referenced against medical records obtained by FA, which showed a 5.56mm bullet had been retrieved from Gulzar’s body. Examining the footage for personnel carrying rifles that matched the calibre, FA found that Greek soldiers were carrying rifles capable of firing 5.56mm bullets, and that no such weapons were present on the Turkish side of the border.
Abuzaid says it is unusual for FA to try to prove a killing has taken place, as usually in cases like al Arab or Gulzar’s there is at least an acknowledgement of it by the authorities, at which point it is normally FA’s task to investigate the details to prove, for example, whether the killing was lawful or extrajudicial.
The killing of Mark Duggan
While Forensic Architecture has worked extensively in the Greece-Turkey border region to assist refugees and asylum seekers, it also works to analyse events across the globe, including in the UK.
In August 2011, Mark Duggan was killed by police in Tottenham after undercover officers forced the taxi he was travelling in to pull over.
Within seconds of Duggan opening the door, an officer codenamed V53 had fired two shots. The first passed through Duggan’s arm, but the second shot hit his chest, fatally wounding him.
V53 told investigators at the time that he felt his life was in danger after seeing a gun in Duggan’s hand, but the gun in question was found on a patch of grass seven meters away from where the shooting occurred. No officers reported that they had seen Duggan throw the gun or make any kind of throwing motion.
The unclear circumstances around Duggan’s killing led to riots across London and other major UK cities.
In 2014, a coroner’s inquest jury concluded that V53’s actions constituted a lawful killing, despite the majority agreeing Duggan had not been holding a gun at the time of the shooting. The judge overseeing the case also expressed concerns about procedural failings in the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation.
Due to lingering questions around how the gun ended up so far away, Abuzaid says the Duggan family’s lawyers got in touch with FA some time in 2018 to investigate the official account of events.
“We investigated three possibilities. In the first, Mark had managed to throw the gun before the first shot, and thus was unarmed at the time of the shooting,” she says.
“The second possibility is that Mark threw the gun after he was shot. However, according to the biomechanical expert we collaborated with, this possibility is unlikely based on speed calculation, the angle and the body strength required to throw the gun for a seven metres distance while injured.”
“The third possibility is that Mark did not throw the gun and it was moved to the grass afterwards by one or more of the officers at the scene.”
Although the entire country came to know of the shooting, there was no digital evidence of it, with a 12-minute video taken roughly 40 seconds after the incident being the only existing video footage.
“In this case, we had to reconstruct the scene by photographing the site and creating a high-resolution 3D model using photogrammetry. We then positioned Mark, the officers and the minicab driver in the scene based on hundreds of documents and testimonies that were made public after the inquest, and the 12-minute video taken by a witness,” she says.
The scene was then reconstructed in a virtual reality environment based on the field of vision described by various officers present, using photos of the scene taken by researchers to build up an accurate representation of the space.
“What is significant in this case is what every officer could have seen – so, if Mark threw the gun, was it possible for them to see that or not? Virtual reality is the closest technology we can use to simulate human vision,” says Abuzaid.
The aim of the exercise was to allow lawyers, police officers and investigators to see what the officers present would have seen, so they could judge for themselves, she adds.
“Our investigation does not conclude what happened that day, yet it highlights the contradictions and possibilities that were not investigated. In this sense, it questions the investigation process itself and raises doubts about the accuracy of the testimonies some of the police officers provided,” says Abuzaid.
Following FA’s completion of its research into the Duggan case, the IOPC declined to reopen the investigation after more than a year of deliberations. According to the FA website – which includes links to correspondence between FA, the Duggan family lawyers, and the IOPC – “the IOPC’s justification for that decision misrepresented or ignored crucial parts of our findings, and of other expert evidence”.
In July 2021, FA’s work on the Duggan case was featured in an exhibition titled War Inna Babylon: The community’s struggle for truth and rights, curated by Tottenham Rights, a community organisation set up to challenge all forms of racism and build new anti-racist alliances.
Creating publicly accessible research tools
While the reconstructions created by Forensic Architecture are already publicly accessible and actively shared with lawyers, NGOs and other relevant organisations, the agency is also working to develop web-based research tools to disseminate to non-expert actors on the ground in support of grassroots activism.
FA is currently in the process – for example, using timemap, an open source software that helps it to visualise geospatial events within an interactive platform – of developing a clearer understanding of how the Grenfell Tower fire unfolded, and how the forced expulsions of Palestinians in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied Jerusalem have occurred.
“Palestinians in Jerusalem receive expulsion or demolition notices almost on a daily basis. We’re aiming to show the aggregation of these individual and gradual acts of displacement, that when put together amount to a process of ethnic cleansing,” says Abuzaid, adding FA is also creating a timeline of the legal processes Palestinian families have to endure as part of the Israeli state’s attempt to displace them.
“We aim to bring visibility to and awareness of the struggles of Palestinian families in Jerusalem and to conduct an urban analysis of the displacement patterns – where these houses are within the city, their locations in relation to al-Aqsa Mosque, for example. From the initial patterns that emerged from our research, we know the occupation is trying to empty a ring around the Old City which will disconnect it from its Palestinian surroundings.”
Abuzaid adds that the Grenfell and the forced expulsion projects will have a spatial element consisting of 3D maps, as well as a timeline element that lets users understand when specific events occurred and in what order. Attached to these timelines will be testimonies from those on the ground. They are due to be released some time in 2022.
Read more about technology and human rights
- Proposed data gathering powers for UK police could override existing data protection rules, damage citizens’ trust in essential public services and further entrench discriminatory policing practices.
- The United Nations’ high commissioner on human rights has called for a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence systems that pose a serious risk to human rights as a matter of urgency.
- Major venture capital firms and accelerator programmes involved in funding and developing technology businesses have failed to implement adequate human rights due diligence processes, which means their investments could be contributing to abuses around the world, claims Amnesty International.