Digital forensics are being used to demand justice in the Mediterranean

On 18 April 2015, hours after departing the coast of Garabulli, Libya, a boat packed with desperate bodies collided with a larger ship in what the United Nations would later record as the largest loss of human life seen on the Mediterranean in decades.

Digital forensics are being used to demand justice in the Mediterranean

The boat, carrying approximately 850 people of multiple nationalities, including children, was an old wooden fishing vessel. It stood little chance of stabilising when it crashed into a Portuguese container ship, which had been called to its rescue by the Italian coastguard. It sank in five minutes.

“I felt this was the end,” said one of the 28 survivors in an interview held more than a year later with independent research agency, Forensic Architecture. “Death was waiting for us.”

Established by a team from Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture uses so-called counter-forensics to bring human rights violations to light, using thermal imagery and distress signals, to mobile data to investigate death. It visually attributes systemic responsibility to violence, whether it has occurred in a warzone or at sea.

(Interview with the survivors of the 18 April shipwreck. Credit: Forensic Oceanography)

The agency’s report Death by Rescue uses a combination of spatial and material analysis to provide an alternative, scientifically accurate, narrative to what happened on 18 April 2015.

“Each investigation requires a completely different assemblage of technologies”

“We start from their [the survivors’] testimony and then we try to correlate that in various ways,” architect Lorenzo Pezzani told Alphr. “Each investigation requires a completely different assemblage of technologies and, while meteorological data is always there, our project tries to use that in order to document what we think is a human rights violation.”

This method takes the monitoring tools used by governments, and those of both ships that collided on the Mediterranean that day, to empower citizens to question the information being released about such incidents.

Disobedient gaze

“We speak about this idea of a ‘disobedient gaze’,” said Pezzani, who, along with Charles Heller, is part of a multidisciplinary team that traverses the fields of law, art and journalism. “[We are] trying to use surveillance technology against those who use it to show the things that they don’t want to show.”

A previous investigation into a drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan, for instance, revealed that residential buildings were targeted in the American campaign against terror. It used publicly available satellite imagery and an analysis of shadow from a video taken at the scene. A 3D model of a hit building was then created to map the trajectory of the missile based around the destruction it caused. Without this information, the responsibility of a bombing is easy to deny or attribute elsewhere.

Using the same principles, the Forensic Oceanography project; an offshoot of Forensic Architecture, turned to the geography of the sea – where the team believes a militarised border has developed alongside NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya. As part of an exhibition currently showing at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Forensic Architecture charts the historical evolution of this border and how European states have created the conditions in which 16,173 people have died crossing the Mediterranean.

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(Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture’ exhibition at the ICA, London. Credit: Mark Blower)

Left to die

The work highlights specific instances, including the infamous “left-to-die” boat case from 2011, where 63 migrants died due to the failure of a number of European states to rescue those in distress. It’s a requirement bound by international law that would later produce EU deterrence policies and place a burden on commercial vessels unequipped to deal with relief operations, as seen on 18 April 2015.

“Surveillance means you must be able to see what’s happening,” said Pezzani, referring to the left-to-die case. “So the fact that they didn’t intervene, and people are still dying, could constitute a crime.”

Turning the heavily monitored area back on those who were surveying, Forensic Oceanography was able to prove how the 2011 boat came into contact with multiple military assets after it ran out of fuel and was left drifting in and out of search and rescue zones for fifteen days.

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(By simulating the motion of waves, and cross-referencing this with historical weather data, Forensic Architecture can confirm the direction in which a vessel is travelling. Credit: Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture)

In a video report produced by the team, Pezzani explains: “NATO relied on an complex assemblage of remote sensing technologies so as to detect threats hidden within maritime traffic. These included AIS [automatic identification system] vessel-tracking systems, which emit a signal to coastguard stations of identity, speed and position of large commercial vessels.”

NATO also relied on satellite imagery, which is presented by Forensic Oceanography as bright dots representing all of the ships in the area at the time, some which could have reached the migrant boat within two hours.

“They also knew the migrants were in distress because they called for help on their satellite phone,” said Pezzani, noting how it is common practice for the Libyan military to provide these vessels with both GPS and a satellite phone. “So why did they not rescue them?”

With help from oceanographer Richard Limeburner, the location and drift of the boat was reconstructed based on data of the wind and water current, and cross-checked with the size of the vessel in order to demonstrate the clear act of non-assistance by NATO vessels.

Limeburner used meteorological data from Lampedusa airport and ocean current data provided by MyOcean, which is readily available and used to monitor waters, as well as forecast environmental changes. He told Alphr that the 3D nature of ocean currents is complicated to measure, but that the models have improved due to advancing technology.

The research by Forensic Oceanography led to a report on the 18 April 2015 shipwreck, arguing that EU agencies and policy makers knowingly created the conditions that led to the loss of life.

“[The EU’s] policy of retreat from state-led Search and Rescue (SAR) operations shifted the burden of extremely dangerous search and rescue operations onto large merchant ships, which are ill-fitted to conduct them,” the team conclude. “In this way, EU agencies and policy makers knowingly created the conditions that led to massive loss of life in the April shipwrecks. Death by Rescue was thus the outcome of the EU’s policy of non-assistance.”

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(Automatic Identification System (AIS) vessel tracks in the Mediterranean following the 18 April shipwreck. Credit: Forensic Oceanography)

The correlated facts presented by Forensic Oceanography have not been contested and several legal cases have been filed to get NATO to admit their violation in international waters. The move toward non-assistance by the EU has not stopped the flow of migrants and the fleet of non-governmental organisation (NGO) vessels that have replaced the rescue operations of commercial ships have been accused of collaborating with smugglers.

Self-protection through data

These sort of accusations bring up another important aspect of Forensic Architecture’s work – technical literacy. Asylum seekers and NGOs alike, Pezzani explained, have started to learn how data can be used to protect them from future violations, documenting their own movements with cameras and GPS.

“Definitely one of the most interesting outcomes of our work has been the growing interest of the activist community in how they can use technologies like vessel tracking data, video and metadata to collect evidence at sea,” said Pezzani, speaking about how these materials have disproven claims by the Italian authorities regarding an NGO ship on 2 August 2017.

“As long as there is a border regime in place, there will always be structural violence”

Data empowerment continues to be vital as people continue to cross the Mediterranean and shipping lanes. As Wired reports, vessels have been investigated by the European Commission for turning off their automatic identification systems. Without the implementation of this technology, which produces public information of a ship’s location and route, finding out who was responsible for the deaths of over 800 people when the wooden fishing boat sunk would been near-impossible.

“As long as there is a border regime in place, there will always be structural violence,” said Pezzani. “In this concept of forensics and specific policy decisions taken by state actors, there’s not a forum where this violence can be heard or addressed. I guess this is our small contribution to a much wider issue.”

A selection of Forensic Architecture’s work Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture is on at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London until 6 May 2018. 

Lead image: Photograph taken by the crew of the OOC Cougar as a migrants’ boat capsized upon approaching the ship that was attempting to rescue it, 3 March 2015 . Photo credit: OOC Opielok Offshore Carrier.

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