Research project

Digital Verification Unit

Principal Investigator
Dr Daragh Murray

About the project

The Digital Verification Unit operates under the umbrella of the Human Rights Centre Clinic, is affiliated with the Human Rights, Big Data & Technology Project, and is a member of the University of Essex Conflict and Acute Crisis Hub.

Recent advances in digital communications technology – and in particular social media and the spread of the smartphone – have revolutionized the practice of human rights. Victims of, and witnesses to, human rights abuses can now document their experiences, and share them directly with the world. This information can then contribute to broader human rights documentation and accountability mechanisms. Indeed, the recent International Criminal Court arrest warrant issued against Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli was based entirely on open source digital information.

Building on longstanding work in the field, Essex Human Rights Centre launched a Digital Verification Unit in 2016 to strengthen the use of emerging technologies in human rights investigations and prosecutions. We have since created one of the first university-based Human Rights Investigations Units of its kind to conduct open source investigations for international organizations and courts. Amnesty International is our principal partner, and we are a member of their Digital Verification Corps. We also work with other partners such as NGOs and UN Commissions of Inquiry to advance human rights documentation and strengthen the veracity of information. Students are trained to verify user generated information on potential war crimes and hate crimes and to rapidly respond to human rights crises.

The Digital Verification Unit works to document and verify digital evidence pertaining to human rights abuses, and to use open source investigative techniques in the pursuit of accountability. It is run by Daragh Murray, Katya Al Khateeb and Sam Dubberley. Our principal partner is Amnesty International, and the Essex Digital Verification Unit forms part of Amnesty’s digital verification corps.

If you are a student and wish to be involved in the Digital Verification Unit for 2020-2021, a call for application will open in October 2020. All students studying at the University of Essex are invited to apply.

Logo for THE Awards 2019 Winner International Collaboration of the Year
Times Higher Award for international collaboration of the year

The Digital Verification Corps was named International Collaboration of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards - the Oscars of higher education.

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Our contributions

The Digital Verification Unit is part of many projects, the following is an example of our contributions.

Investigations conducted by several UN investigative mechanisms (2018-2019)

Members within the Unit have worked with two UN Commissions of Inquiry.

Raqqa Project with Amnesty International

The Unit participated in the verification of images of airstrikes and images of destroyed buildings as part of Amnesty’s wider project on Raqqa. On 25th April 2019, Amnesty International launched War in Raqqa: Rhetoric Versus Reality, an immersive, interactive report detailing the civilian deaths and the scale of destruction inflicted upon the people of Raqqa, Syria as a result of airstrikes by the US-led Coalition in 2017.

The Potential Use of Cluster Munitions in Syria with Amnesty

The Unit investigated the attack on Shayrat Air Base, and possible use of chemical weapons like chlorine gas and white phosphorus. The Unit also collaborated with the Syrian Archive working through their database of photos and videos and verifying them.

Report to Council on Ethics

The Digital Verification Unit contributed to the work of the Centre for Climate Crime Analysis, conducting an investigation into potential crimes committed in relation to the Cerro de Pasco mine. This work contributed to a report submitted by CCA to the Council on Ethics of the Norwegian Pension Fund requesting divestment from Glencore.

Destroyed building in Raqqa, Syria
Digital Verification Unit students contribute to ground-breaking report by Amnesty International

Essex students have used social media content to help challenge official accounts of the bombing of the Syrian city of Raqqa.

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Our members

2018-2019

Current students studying at the University of Essex who are members of this year's unit include Dan O Eboka, Matteo Bassetti, Esme Marshall, Arlen S Millner, Mitchell E Paquette, Jasmine R Sinyinza, Kai W Cheng, Daniel Missenden, Valentine M B Hambye and Annalise A McWilliams.

2017-2018

Members of the unit in 2017-2018 who have since graduated from the University of Essex include; Katya Alkhateeb, Ayushi Kalyan, Francesca Fazio, Ilie Chirtoaca, Martin Kainz, Rebeca Nader Lopez, Angela Patino Palacios, and Tanya Roberts-Davis.

Essex Digital Verification Unit at the final dinner at Pembroke College Hall)
Essex Digital Verification Unit at the final dinner at Pembroke College Hall

2016-2017

Members of the unit in 2016-2017 who have since graduated from the University of Essex include; Olivia Lannelli, Mark Groenendijkand, Fredrik Åhsberg and Jenna Dolecek.

Members of 2018-2019 Digital Verification Unit)
Members of 2018-2019 Digital Verification Unit

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