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The University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation and Stanford University have partnered on The Starling Lab, which will be dedicated to using decentralized tools based on cryptography and blockchain to advance the cause of human rights.
The two organizations have a commitment for $2 million in funding from Protocol Labs and the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web to make the Starling Lab into the first such center in the world.
The lab will tackle the technical and ethical challenges of establishing trust around the most sensitive digital records of our human history, using the latest advances in cryptography and decentralized web protocols. The announcement was made during RightsCon, the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age. I wrote about how Project Starling worked with Reuters to collect photos documenting the recent U.S. presidential transition. That project used a variety of technological solutions to verify the authenticity of the photos — including those of the Capitol riot.
“The Reuters project was a good example of the types of things that we were looking to do as an initial set of prototypes,” Starling Lab founding director Jonathan Dotan said in an interview with VentureBeat. “And both universities realized that there was a tremendous need to look into further study of the decentralized web. And that was a massive change in terms of our understanding of the importance of this work. So it wasn’t just about a series of technologies or best practices, but this is actually about the re-architecting of the internet, end to end. And so the decision was taken to create the first dedicated research center in the world, specifically on looking at the decentralized web and how it can be used to advance human rights.”
The lab will be supported by a multi-year funding commitment from the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web (FFDW) and Protocol Labs. The initial funds will be used to hire full-time staff and fund fellowships at the lab, bringing together faculty, students, and industry experts to develop technology and methods that make the decentralized internet a viable platform for social impact.
Human rights groups interested in working with organizations like FFDW and the Starling Lab to capture, store, verify and preserve valuable datasets should visit starlinglab.org/join to learn more about training, educational, and grant opportunities.
On stage at the human-rights-focused RightsCon online event, Dotan and FFDW board chair Marta Belcher discussed the creation of the Starling Lab and the possibilities of strengthening the integrity of history, journalism, and legal accountability in this era of rising digital misinformation.
Dotan, who is founding director of the Starling Lab, said in a statement that the original promise of the internet was to use decentralized systems to give everyone a chance to expand human knowledge and understanding. That seems like a distant goal, but he said it’s more vital than ever before. He said the lab’s staff wants to help write a new chapter for the web by innovating with technology and ethics that allow everyone to restore digital trust.
“With any new technology, it’s definitely a matter of, instead of having expert witnesses you can testify about, about how a technology actually means that this thing is real and true based on the technological facts,” Belcher said in an interview. “What’s so incredible about this technology is that it gives you the ability to verify the truth of a matter.”
The Photographic Archive of Trust
Starling’s research teams have already built notable proofs of concept to document human rights and civil rights violations, war crimes, and genocide testimony. A recent example includes the previously mentioned 78 Days: A Photographic Archive of Trust, an archive of images captured by Reuters’ photojournalists documenting the pivotal 78 days of the United States presidential transition between the 2020 election and Inauguration Day.
For that project, the various groups collaborated with tech companies — including Adobe’s Content Authenticity Initiative, Filecoin, and Hedera Hashgraph — to create the Photographic Archive of Trust. The prototype combines technological solutions to verify the authenticity of images, which have metadata that is committed to a blockchain — the blockchain alternative tech created by Hedera Hashgraph — which can quickly record data in an immutable fashion. It lets anyone check the provenance of an image and access immutable information, including a timestamp, where the image is stored, and a verified edit history.
The archive takes the photos from the Reuters photographers and commits them to several blockchain ledgers, allowing anyone to check the provenance of the image. On the tech side, the coalition includes the Adobe-led Content Authenticity Initiative — a cross-industry collaboration to develop an industry standard for content attribution. It includes Filecoin, the world’s largest decentralized storage network that works well with permanent storage of images. It also includes IPFS, the peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol designed to make the web faster, safer, and more open. And it uses Hedera Hashgraph and the HTC/Numbers Protocol, which brings blockchain technology to mobile devices and the cameras associated with them.
Some of these systems use blockchain, a digital ledger that was introduced to the public via Bitcoin. The underlying principle is that there is no central authority controlling a single ledger. Everyone who is part of the system controls a decentralized and shared record. A blockchain is a relatively new kind of database that is becoming the solution for storing digital information more securely.
Hedera is a decentralized public network on which developers can build secure, fair applications with near real-time finality. The Hedera Consensus Service (HCS) acts as a trust layer for any application or permissioned network and allows for the creation of an immutable and verifiable log of messages. Application messages are submitted to the Hedera network for consensus, given a trusted timestamp, and fairly ordered. Built for tracking things, Hedera uses an alternative to the blockchain that achieves some of the same security benefits but is also faster. So it was useful in getting metadata onto the secure and permanent network as quickly as possible.
The photos are archived using a distributed cryptographic system for safekeeping. With technology from the Content Authenticity Initiative, users can easily see secure attribution data for each digital image through a next-generation user interface and file standard led by Adobe and cofounded by the New York Times and Twitter.
Anyone with an internet connection can access the archive and the immutable information within each image description. With conspiracy theories and deep fakes rife on social media and the public’s increasing reliance on social media platforms as a source of news, providing a tool to verify the authenticity of digital content is crucial to counteracting the manipulation of information.
Reuters photojournalists captured photos using Numbers Protocol, thereby creating a unique fingerprint for every photo. Examined and edited by news editors and fact-checkers, photos are labeled, showing image metadata from the Reuters content management system.
Each image was first committed to the Hedera Consensus Service (HCS). The image was then cryptographically hashed using IPFS, creating a content identifier (CID) that serves as a unique fingerprint of that image, and hosted on a distributed server. Instead of being location-based, IPFS addresses a file based on its contents. The content identifier is a cryptographic hash of the content at that address. The hash is unique to the content it came from, even though it may look short compared to the original content. It also allows you to verify that you got what you asked for — bad actors can’t just hand you content that doesn’t match. Because the address of a file in IPFS is created from the content itself, links in IPFS can’t be changed.
Images are uploaded and stored on Filecoin’s decentralized cloud network, and Filecoin provides a continuous record to show that files are secure and have not been tampered with. Using the new CAI standard for image attribution, anyone can view the image archive and check its provenance using immutable information, including a timestamp, image storage data, and verified edit history.
Dotan said it isn’t intuitive to think of technology as being able to preserve a piece of history for the long term. Hard drives are meant to last five years or so, and then they can become obsolete. If you’re trying to preserve something like the memory of the Holocaust, as the USC Shoah Foundation has done with its 55,000 archived testimonials, then it becomes a real problem to find the technology that preserves it.
But Dotan said the great thing about decentralization is that it isn’t dependent on a single node. For instance, one piece of information could be stored on many different kinds of storage media in a peer-to-peer network of computers, and if one of them becomes obsolete, that doesn’t matter. The rest of the computers will still have the archived data. In that way, decentralized computer networks can adapt as pieces of the network become obsolete, Dotan said.
“One of the challenges is that we live in an internet that’s very much built on services, in which if you want access to something, and you want to use add functionality, you’re signing up and end through the cloud with a service that provides you both hardware and software. And you’re stuck on that platform,” Dotan said. “For the most part, you have very little choice. You can maybe switch to another platform if you’re lucky. But it takes a lot of time. And as you’re mentioning, there are a lot of choices that are being made for you in terms of the infrastructure that’s being used and software stack and all the rest of it, and interoperability at the protocol level. So you store information and then you create apps on top of that. Interoperability is like a fundamental principle that we work with in the new decentralized web. So if you think about it at that level, as things evolve with new applications and new infrastructure that emerges, if you have interoperability, then those changes are accommodated for in the decentralized web because it is meant to evolve over time … the idea of decentralization means that you allow the maximum amount of choice for the end users.”
Protecting the human right to privacy
Sometimes the problem with decentralization’s transparency is that it can record everything in the blockchain, but people who are evading tyrants may not want to be easily tracked down. So the Starling Lab has to be careful about allowing that kind of privacy for people involved — such as journalists recording events — when it is necessary, Dotan said.
“As we’ve conceived of the solutions for human rights, you need to have both a set of tools and principles that can allow for great solutions because the tools can be used for amazing things that can help protect life and preserve truth. But those same tools can also be used for surveillance and oppression, and all sorts of things as you’re describing, which can be transgressions and privacy, and human rights,” Dotan said. “So we very much see those two possibilities. And that’s precisely why we wanted to create centers of excellence that can study those two things hand in hand. And when you think a little bit about the evolution, let’s say, of [the engineering department] where this project began, they’ve come to understand as a department that they have to equip their students not just with new methods for new technologies and creating tech breakthroughs, but you also want to have breakthroughs on ethics.”
He added, “You want to have breakthroughs on privacy and principles. And they want those same engineers to be thinking about both types of innovation. And when you think about it, it’s so fascinating that it’s the same technology. Because blockchain technology, when you think of like let’s say, a cryptocurrency, I think people have kind of forgotten that the term cryptocurrency is based on cryptography, right? That’s the crypto market. And cryptography is is very much about creating trust with forms of encryption that can then allow you to create integrity through a process. ”
This means that the lab has to figure out the right uses of blockchain, cryptography, transparency, and privacy when it is using technologies to aid with human rights, Dotan said.
“There are two sides of the same coin here with cryptography on one side, which you can use to create trust with these public networks. And on the other side of the coin, you have encryption, which can be used to help secure privacy of those very same transactions. And so that’s very much what we work on. We are using the fundamentals of cryptography to achieve both aims.”
As an example, you can avoid a possibly corrupt central bank in a particular country that doesn’t respect human rights by using the blockchain in peer-to-peer transactions that don’t have to use the central bank. But the identity of the individual doesn’t have to become public, as that can remain encrypted, Dotan said.
“Going back to journalists, there may be many circumstances in which it is unsafe for them to reveal all the information about their location, and where they took the photo and whatnot,” Dotan said. “And so we gave them the choice to flip that on, at a time of their choosing. And then at the same time, like with human rights activists, they can be in very dangerous situations. And so cryptography is a way of helping protect those individuals. But at the same time, even if they choose to take those protections, they can still retain the integrity of their work. And what’s new here is that you have both of those opportunities. They’re actually not conflicting with each other. They’re self-reinforcing.”
The alignment of decentralization and human rights
There’s another point Dotan wants people to understand about the importance of decentralization and its connection to human rights.
“We maintain the flexibility to allow people to use what part of the stack that they want,” Dotan said. “We’re not committed to one solution. And secondly, which I think is really important, we see that this initiative is very much part of Web3. Stanford had a founding role in creating the internet as we know it, and in the late 1960s, it presented some of the first prototypes of what would become the ARPANET, and then onwards to what eventually in the 1990s became the World Wide Web. What’s interesting about it is that at its origins, the researchers and the professors that were working on this technology, and I should mention, by the way, both at Stanford and at USC, they both each have their own important contributions to the early web. They saw that this network needed to be decentralized. So there wasn’t like a single governing body that was clearing all the standards and mandating protocols. Instead, there was consensus that was slowly built by a variety of different universities first, and then it expanded outwards from there. And the internet of today would be almost unrecognizable to those individuals.”
He said a large swatch of information now goes through the networks of big companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
“What’s important here is that we’re returning to the first principles of how the internet was actually architected,” Dotan said. “We’re creating a new center of study around understanding both how that can be done technically, but then also to explore the ethics and the governance to make sure that now when the Web3 gets created, then we don’t revert back to some new form of centralization. So that this can persist. We can make really important choices and create new ways of thinking that are the basis of the next generation of computer science and electrical engineering.”
He added, “This is easily the most intuitive and also the most powerful use case for decentralized technology. Because it allows for human rights activists who are often at the margins of society and often working in extreme difficult situations, for them to be empowered with and to get out information about those circumstances, both for the terror that’s going on and then also for being able to create solutions.”
The USC Shoah Foundation is decentralizing the storage of its testimonials so that they can be permanently archived. And now they will be able to scale to take thousands of more testimonials about genocide in the coming years as a result of the technology, Dotan said.
“We’re working on decentralizing the storage of that archive,” Dotan said.
The lab can also tackle civil rights issues and capture testimony about the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
“We’re expanding to go beyond genocides, looking at issues around civil rights. So that’s exciting,” he said.
In the years ahead, the Starling Lab will be the permanent home for future case studies and function as an innovation laboratory that explores new decentralized technology and governance in the field to address present-day mass atrocities, intolerance, and hate-based violence and unrest due to climate change. It will bring back these learnings to pioneer new collegiate courses, a K-12 curriculum, and professional training modules on digital trust.
Colin Evran, ecosystem lead at Protocol Labs, said in a statement that the lab will accelerate the transition from Web2 to Web3, enabling more traditional Web2 companies to store, verify, and preserve valuable datasets in powerful new ways using decentralized technologies like Filecoin and IPFS. As a founding partner, Protocol Labs is thrilled to be cementing its long-term commitment to the Starling Lab through funding and world-class mentorship, Angie Maguire, head of growth and marketing at Protocol Labs, said in an interview with VentureBeat.
“Jonathan is very much the visionary here,” Maguire said. “We at Protocol Labs are just so proud to be part of this moment, as a founding partner. We see ourselves as just part of a much bigger picture here. It really aligns with our values as a company.”
Belcher said the lab and FFDW share the mission of preserving humanity’s most important information. She said she is thrilled to be able to support the Starling Lab’s critical work of documenting human rights abuses and ensuring that the data persists using decentralized web technologies.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, UNESCO chair on Genocide Education, and faculty director of the Starling Lab at USC, said in a statement that the Shoah Foundation has for 25 years embraced advanced technologies that can transform preservation and education as the foundation advances its mission of cultivating empathy, respect, and understanding through testimony. He said the commitment will allow the foundation and the lab to deepen an important new area of research and fulfill the promise to survivors of genocide by ensuring that their digital history can withstand the test of time.
The team is looking at the curriculum being considered and the classes being designed and textbooks being written. They are also looking at hiring five people now and more later on, Dotan said. He said the lab is inviting human rights organizations to pitch potential projects and learn about the technology. After all, Dotan said, the knowledge about decentralization and human rights shouldn’t be centralized in just one lab. In fact, there are perhaps 30 engineers around the world working on the open source tech the lab needs.
“We don’t want to centralize knowledge,” Dotan said. “We very much want to train others.”
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