The reverse McAfee: Why Witness won $320k from the Knight Foundation

By Hamish McKenzie

When anti-virus fugitive John McAfee was on the run in Guatemala, the journalists he was with inconveniently exposed his location to authorities by posting a photo to Vice Magazine’s website that contained metadata identifying his whereabouts.

Bit of an oversight, that. For McAfee, the consequences couldn’t have been more serious. They resulted in an arrest, a humiliation, and a hospitalization. For less cartoonish figures, however, the consequences of unintentional metadata leaks from digital photographs can be even more severe.

Human rights activists and journalists in conflict zones routinely put their lives at risk by attempting to record video and images in dangerous places, where in many cases powerful militant bodies would rather they not. Think of Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran. In many such cases, however, they face the opposite problem to what McAfee naively exposed himself to. Instead of accidentally leaking identifying information, they actually need it. When oppressive forces are only too willing to manipulate digital data and photographs for their own nefarious ends, the value of verification becomes ever more crucial.

That’s why the 20-year-old Witness, an NGO that promotes and supports the use of videography and photography as a means to document human rights abuses, has, in conjunction with the Guardian Project, developed InformaCam, an app that bakes in a bunch of metadata to “watermark” an image or video. Today, the Knight Foundation announced that Witness is one of eight recipients of its mobile innovation grants, intended to facilitate projects that “inform and engage communities.” Witness is getting $320,000 from the Foundation. In total, the Knight Foundation is doling out $2.4 million worth of grants to the eight recipients.

Witness’ technology manager Bryan Nunez says the InformaCam app will automatically add encrypted metadata to photos and video so that whoever receives them can know where they were taken, at what time of day, and various other nuggets of mobile-enabled information, which can include temperature, altitude, motion, and cell tower details.



About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit