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Anti-atrocity system with airdropped video cameras

Our world has not rid itself of atrocity and genocide. What can modern high-tech do to help? In Bosnia, we used bombs. In Rwanda, we did next to nothing. In Darfur, very little. Here's a proposal that seems expensive at first, but is in fact vastly cheaper than the military solutions people have either tried or been afraid to try. It's the sunlight principle.

First, we would mass-produce a special video recording "phone" using the standard parts and tools of the cell phone industry. It would be small, light, and rechargeable from a car lighter plug, or possibly more slowly through a small solar cell on the back. It would cost a few hundred dollars to make, so that relief forces could airdrop tens or even hundreds of thousands of them over an area where atrocity is taking place. (If they are $400/pop, even 100,000 of them is 40 million dollars, a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of military operations.) They could also be smuggled in by relief workers on a smaller scale, or launched over borders in a pinch. Enough of them so that there are so many that anybody performing an atrocity will have to worry that there is a good chance that somebody hiding in bushes or in a house is recording it, and recording their face. This fear alone would reduce what took place.

Once the devices had recorded a video, they would need to upload it. It seems likely that in these situations the domestic cell system would not be available, or would be shut down to stop video uploads. However, that might not be true, and a version that uses existing cell systems might make sense, and be cheaper because the hardware is off the shelf. It is more likely that some other independent system would be used, based on the same technology but with slightly different protocols.

The anti-atrocity team would send aircraft over the area. These might be manned aircraft (presuming air superiority) or they might be very light, autonomous UAVs of the sort that already are getting cheap in price. These UAVs can be small, and not that high-powered, because they don't need to do that much transmitting -- just a beacon and a few commands and ACKs. The cameras on the ground will do the transmitting. In fact, the UAVs could quite possibly be balloons, again within the budget of aid organizations, not just nations. As the UAV floated over the area, it would announce itself with a beacon issued at precise time intervals. The precise intervals would also be known to the cameras, so they could listen for beacons with an extremely low power demand. In theory they could sit for weeks on a charge waiting for a beacon if they know the time exactly. They could know that time either with a good internal clock, or perhaps ideally with a small GPS unit -- which has other values as well.

After sending a beacon, the UAV would listen for offers of videos from the ground. Those offers might include the GPS location of the camera (encrypted of course) and its power level and other parameters of the video, including the ID of the camera. The UAV could then decide to command various cameras to do their upload. It would do this in a way to assure it can get as many as possible, and possibly decide that others are too far away to get on this pass, but could arrange for another pass or another UAV to pick up the video. The UAV could even move to get a video if need be. Unlike the cell system there would be no contention, and limited need for 2-way communication, so power demand would be low and protocols simple.

If solar charging is used, a phone could wait until it has enough charge, even if the solar cell is tiny and takes days to produce enough power to transmit a video. Eventually it would do it. Somebody who shot a video could take the camera and hide it anywhere it will get some sunlight. Eventually it would upload its video to the UAVs. The battery's only purpose is to shoot video, play instructions and upload video, not to be online all the time or power a bright screen.

The UAVs of course would transmit all data back live, in case they are shot down. They have the power for that. Ideally there is air superiority and they are not easy to shoot down.

If a UAV is overhead, there could even be live transmission of video, which might be the only recourse if the camera is being used by a victim of atrocity. The victim might be doomed, but able to send out the video, or use the threat of live video to save himself.

The cameras would come with instructions on how to use them, in audio in the local languages, playable out the speaker. It might not have a screen though one would be nice, though it would probably be a non-backlit b&w one to be cheap and save power. Audio would be better in areas of high illiteracy anyway.

Ideally the cameras would come with various disguises. They might be made up to look like popular cell phones or music players used in the area. They might be fit into packets of cigarettes, wallets or anything else people might carry. Ideally as many different disguises as possible. Simply being small, however, would be the best way to keep them hidden in house searches or limited personal searches. They will, of course, be searched for by the bad guys.

There will also be denial of service (DOS) attacks. The bad guys will get as many cameras as they can, and have them all send videos as much as they can. As such, incoming videos would need to be quickly put into a mechanical turk style system, where aid workers and volunteers can check for real atrocity videos and DOS attempts. Cameras used in DOS attempts can quickly be blacklisted. (The bad guys may join the volunteer pool, so volunteers would themselves need reputation and it would need to be checked if any where reporting fake DOS attempts on real atrocity videos.)

Cameras will encryption based security, possibly with a tamper-resistent chip. It must not be possible to forge the beacon (so that bad guys can not sniff out cameras) or to provide fake streams as a DOS attempt. It should be hard to forge videos and ideally easy to authenticate them, as they will be evidence in war crimes trials. It will be possible for each user to record a short video of who they are, and mark it so that this video is never made available to anything but a court. Of course it is fine if they don't trust this. It is unlikely the bad guys could produce their own cameras but if they did, you would not want people identifying themselves to them. If bad guys could make the cameras there is a risk they could use them to sniff out the dissidents and spot their locations. These cameras are a better tool against unsophisticated wagers of atrocity.

The camera would have no other purpose, there would be no reason to collect them or sell them. It might be usable as a phone, but only to talk to aid workers while a UAV is overhead. Or more likely they could send voice mails to the phone that the owner could hear. However, in most cases, a phone user would simply hide or abandon the phone after capturing an incriminating video, letting it upload. It is debatable if it should have a way to indicate upload success. This is useful, but not knowing might be more frightening to a bad guy who gets ahold of a phone in a house search. On the other hand, a phone that shows green while doing live transmission could be a useful weapon. The phones might also show green to fake live transmission.

To do live transmission, it might make sense to build a codec that allows live transmission of low quality video, and then transmits the rest of the details later in the batch mode. This would allow the support of more live transmissions. Of course to avoid DOS, there have to be some limits on the live transmission, again with volunteers watching them to see what's interesting and what's not, and marking the less interesting for batch transmission later. (Perhaps just minutes later.)

It would be even more interesting if this could be done to satellites rather than UAVs, and these require no air superiority. However, they are much more expensive and it takes more power to transmit to them. However, it is not nearly as hard a problem as something like the Iridium phone. For these cameras, transmission would be done in batch, and only when commanded. Full-time connection is not required. The satellite could in fact be aiming a parabolic dish at the areas where it expects to receive transmissions, allowing the detection of much lower power signals. If the satellite only went over from time to time, it would still be able to collect videos. However, this is something only in the province of the USA and a few other nations. UAVs could be launched by nations, but also by aid groups, where they might be closer to robotic model airplanes costing a few thousands of dollars, or balloons costing even less (but likely to be lost after use.)

The end result would be more documentation of atrocities, and more fear that atrocities are being documented. This might have been enough to stop actions in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur. And ideally in other places. For a fraction of the cost (and risk) of military action.


The end result would be more documentation of atrocities, and more fear that atrocities are being documented. This might have been enough to stop actions in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur.

Are you of the impression that it was a lack of documentation that mainly determined the tepid response to these events? As opposed to (say) general UN toothlessness, or lack of interest amongst those powers that had policing energy to spare?

For a fraction of the cost (and risk) of military action.

In order to stop atrocities in progress, military action would still be necessary.

And what kind of plausible / precedented punishment is supposed to deter the maniacs?

The leaders may not be stopped, for they are already not anonymous, and for the likes of Slobodan there was trial, and documentation of what went on played a large role in the trial. But they can't do it alone. Thousands of Hutus took up machetes and slaughtered. Would they have acted the same if they feared they were on camera? Perhaps, but also perhaps not, and just about any reduction is worth a modest cost like this. Many acts would stop being statistics and have actual faces associated with them.

And yes, it would also be seen more by the world. We always ask ourselves, "why didn't we stop it?" We do try to hide it from our minds when it is happening. The U.S. was the big not-step-up in Rwanda, afraid of repeating Somalia, in that it blocked the security council, but the whole world didn't step up. Most nations of the world could have fielded a force able to scare the ordinary Rwandans -- or at least so we are told by some analysts of that situation.

It may be that just a bit more is needed. It may not be. But if people think they can be held personally responsible, if they realize that in the modern digital age their legacy will be video of them committing atrocity -- perhaps they will have an extra thought.

This idea is similar to an idea put forward in webcomic "The Spiders" by Patrick Farley. Sadly now only viewable on the wayback machine:

In this case, the spiders are small, web controlled, web cameras with legs. They are the thread throughout the story. Because they are web controlled, anyone can queue up to control one, and anyone can view whatever is being seen by any spider. Reading between the lines, they are purchased by individuals to be distributed to war zones (Afghanistan, in this case). They are used not only to provide documentation, but also aid in certain circumstances.

If you want another view of this fantastic idea, it's a quick little read, although only the first 15 or 20 pages of his project were completed.

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