Rebel Geeks

Rebel Geeks: A Bigger Brother

Two cyber activists are creating a smartphone app so activists in Rio de Janeiro can securely document police violence.

Amnesty International report that Rio de Janeiro police kill more than 400 civilians a year – one of the highest rates in the world. Police are almost never charged, let alone convicted.

New York techies Harlo Holmes and Nathan Freitas are developing a smartphone app so media activists in Rio de Janeiro, like Colectivo Papa Reto, can securely document police violence.

I do believe the government is preparing itself to surveil people working in alternative media. But we will keep fighting for our rights.

by Raull Santiago, Coletivo Papo Reto

A group of citizen journalists and a human rights organisation join the coders, Holmes and Freitas, as they beta test an app called CameraV.

This app captures key metadata about a given moment and embeds that data into the image’s pixels. The app developers are effectively putting the power of metadata back into the hands of the people by hacking the smartphone’s key sensors, so that citizens can record events and hold those in power accountable.


By Orlando de Guzman & Lorien Olive

I first learned about the human rights group Witness during my work in the southern Philippines more than 15 years ago, when I met with leaders from the indigenous Manobo people who were being harassed and killed by government-backed paramilitaries. The Manobo tribesmen were being kicked off their ancestral lands to make way for sugarcane plantations, which had hired local militias to terrorise them. The Manobos I met were among the most destitute of the Philippine landless class: hungry, homeless, and traumatised. But they had a new weapon against the injustice: a pair of clunky Hi-8 video cameras courtesy of Witness, a human rights organisation that uses video as an advocacy tool.

Witness is keenly aware of the evocative power of eyewitness video. The organisation was born around the same time as the infamous video of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King that sparked the Los Angeles Riots in 1991. Witness saw the enormous potential of cameras in the hands of ordinary citizens.

Fifteen years ago, the video cameras they distributed in the southern Philippines yielded shocking results.  The Manobo tribesmen documented the tragic final hours of one of their own activists, who bled to death waiting for medical attention after being shot by plantation militias. For me, it was a powerful and chilling moment in citizen journalism. At a time and place where video cameras were out of reach for most people, including myself, the raw footage offered a powerful affirmation of the truth.

The evocative power of video is undeniable. Not a day goes by without a new cellphone video surfacing, refuting, and casting doubt on official claims. For Witness, the dream of putting cameras in the hands of activists has been fulfilled by the natural evolution of the smartphone.

From Ferguson, to Hong Kong, to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the power of human rights documentation is now in the hands of just about anyone. For activists exposing abuses of state power, this has been both an opportunity and a liability. Current social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have done little to protect ordinary citizens who take the brave step to divulge sensitive information about government abuses. Authorities trawl social media posts and syphon smartphone metadata to track, harass and arrest activists.

For coder Harlo Holmes, whose friends from Occupy Wall Street were targeted for arrests through the data footprints on their smartphones, it was clear that the very tools of activism had become mechanisms of self-surveillance. 

“It makes you angry when your civil rights are being abused vis-a-vis the technologies that you’ve brought into your life,” says Holmes. “It hurts even. But I am hopeful because I personally understand why those tricks were so effective that I might be able to do a little thing here and there to counter that. And that’s legal.”

While in university Holmes began a project which she called “A Bigger Brother”. It was an ambitious undertaking with profound implications. What if the power of metadata was available to ordinary people who could harness and use it for social justice, rather than merely being a tool for top-down surveillance? What if metadata could paint an alternative narrative that is verifiable? What if citizen videos could finally meet legal standards for evidence?

By embedding various sensor data from the smartphone into the pixels of a captured image, Holmes has paved the way for new evidentiary and authentication standards in this age of digital replication and social media. That project went on to become the CameraV app, which is at the heart of this film.

“This work has two aspects,” says Nathan Freitas, from The Guardian Project. He is Holmes’ former professor and mentor. “Gather all this extra data, and then safeguard it as much as possible, so that the person gathering the data can choose who to share it with.”

Smartphones are advertised as fetishes, its power mysteriously shrouded in its sleek case of glass and aluminum. We have little idea of what lies under the hood. In this film, we wanted to demystify the smartphone. This demystification process is one that activists like the citizen journalists at the Brazilian project Coletivo Papo Reto have gone through on their own, without outside help. As citizen journalists in one of the most hostile environments, they are forced to use their smartphones in ways that those devices were never intended. Their experience in the favela has informed CameraV, which will continue to evolve as more citizens realize the power of data to advance social justice.