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  • Writer's pictureMichele Neitz

Tuesday Project Spotlight: Starling Labs

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

January 5, 2023

Whether or not we realize it, photographs and accompanying narratives play an essential role in our collective memory. Think of the pictures from the last 100 years that bring history to life: the Tiananmen Square Tank Man (1989), Emmett Till’s casket (1955), The Women’s Suffrage Parade (1913). How different would our shared recollection be without these images? But in the modern era, anyone looking at documentation on the internet tends to ask, “Is this an actual picture/quotation/narrative or has it been manipulated?”

The Problem: “Trust in digital media is broken”(1)

While the internet has undoubtedly created positive changes in our lives, it has also presented new challenges. One of the most difficult problems permeating our culture right now is a lack of trust in basic facts. One’s belief in facts and news often depends on which channel one watches or streams, and viewers often decry what they don’t like as “fake news.”

The internet’s centralization is compounding this problem, but Web3 offers a solution. Enter Starling Labs for Data Integrity, a joint effort between Stanford University and USC Shoah Foundation. For the last four years, Starling Labs has been using cryptographic innovations and decentralized web protocols “to meet the technical and ethical challenges of establishing trust in our most sensitive digital records” (2), and aiming to transform the way digital content is authenticated.

Verifying the Integrity of Digital Content

The ability to verify the integrity of “vulnerable memories” has two components. First, the days of long-lasting documents drafted on parchment paper are gone. Memories preserved on a computer or external drive will not survive long term, for hard drives live an average of 5 years (3). If you use a service to record your memories, you are stuck with that service. For example, it is difficult to move an entire catalog of photos from Google photo to Shutterfly, but this means you are relying on Google to maintain the integrity of your catalog. If something happened to this service, your memories could be “lost in time (4).”

A second issue is manipulation. Any narrative, video, or photograph on the internet can be manipulated. This raises special concerns if the material involves human rights abuses, as evidence of historical abuses can be wiped away or delegitimized.

Maintaining Privacy and Ethics

Journalists and photographers seeking to record modern human rights violations face an additional dilemma: to verify the truth of their interviews and photographs, they may need to document where and when they conducted the interview or took the photograph. However, it may not be safe for them to reveal their location or other information needed for verification. Starling Labs is using decentralized technology to remedy these issues to create a new web of knowledge to give digital information integrity and context.

How Does It Work?

Starling Labs has developed a new framework to authenticate data at each step as you “capture, store, and verify” information using new features of the decentralized web5. As images, records, or web archives are uploaded and stored on Web3 advanced cryptography it “provides a continuous record to show that files are secure and have not been tampered with6.”

In this way, multiple protocols such as Filecoin, Storj, Ethereum, and Avalanche provide distributed computing systems that “enable potentially millions of users to help preserve their integrity of vulnerable records7.” The combination of authentication and encryption allows Starling Labs to verify necessary details through blockchain technology while also ensuring privacy for those transactions8.

Starling Labs has already proven that this model can work. For example, when war broke out in Ukraine, Starling Labs realized the need for maintaining evidence of war crimes that would be submittable in the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Labs used cryptographic proof to authenticate and preserve proof of war crimes, such as Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure. This use case, labeled “Project Dokaz,” includes three steps: (1) archiving evidence of the crime, such as a photo posted on a social media site; (2) ensuring decentralized storage of the evidence on the blockchain; (3) verifying the evidence, which includes:

“[V]etting the source, diving into the post’s metadata, using geolocation tools to confirm the authenticity of photos and looking for corroborating evidence from organizations like the United Nations and Human Rights Watch" (9).

This unique approach enables both present observers and future war crimes tribunals to distinguish between misinformation and actual documentation of evidence that would be submittable in a trial.

Today’s projects can also verify yesterday’s evidence. Starling Labs and Rolling Stone magazine just announced a vivid example of this technology at work: by comparing a 1992 photograph of a soldier kicking a dying woman during the Bosnian Wars with recent social media posts, Starling Labs’s investigators  discovered that some of the soldiers who allegedly committed war crimes during those wars were still alive. Their investigation surfaced payroll records from a group of soldiers called “Arkansas Tigers,” one of whom was recognized as the soldier in the photo (10).  Using these records and social media posts, Starling Labs downloaded the social media posts into a secure web archive. They also verified the photograph’s authenticity.  For survivors of war crimes seeking accountability, Starling Labs’ use of blockchain offers renewed hope that justice will be served.

Moving Forward: Preserving Human History

While headlines focus on cryptocurrency scandals, Starling Labs shows how decentralized technologies are actually being used in socially beneficial ways. Capturing, storing, and verifying our most important records is a critical use case for this new technology that could change the way archives are preserved. Keep an eye on this project as it develops!

  1. Jonathan Dotan, Social media’s selective historical memory is a human rights issue, The Independent (Jan 16, 2021).

  2. Jonathan Dotan, Social media’s selective historical memory is a human rights issue, The Independent (Jan 16, 2021).

  3. Jonathan Dotan, Social media’s selective historical memory is a human rights issue, The Independent (Jan 16, 2021).

  4. Dean Takahashi, USC and Stanford launch Starling Labs to protect human rights with decentralization, VentureBeat (June 10, 2021). For more details on technical aspects of Starling Labs’s work, see Meet Filecoin’s ColLabsorators: Jonathan Dotan, Starling Framework for Data Integrity.

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