Reviews of mobile apps

In this thread, the idea is to summarise impressions with mobile apps used for documentation. This is not a full-blown test, but rather a set of observations.

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I spent some time one evening downloading and playing with Tella (formerly known as Whistler):

Platform: Android only
Open source: not yet, but developers promise to release code “soon”; developers are in my experience very responsive
License: unknown, but documentation says “Yes, Tella is free to download and use. It will remain free forever.”

What problem does it solve:

  • Make it safe and efficient to gather pictures, audio, video and structured data on a phone (and transmit it to a server)

Who is it for?

  • In theory anyone who wants to more safely document on Android; in practice, having an institution that either manages a server or works with/contracts the developers of Tella to do it will find it most useful.

Real use cases (based on information from their website):

  • Human rights documentation in a conflict area in the Middle East and in a highly repressive country in Latin America
  • Monitoring of electoral processes in Eastern Europe and West Africa

What I like:

  • simple set up, now easy to connect it to whatever server you want to connect it with, no default to their server (as was the case with Whistler)
  • easy to disguise
  • quick snapping of picture, video, audio; can add structured data “reports”, but don’t have to
  • works fast and doesn’t crash (unlike other apps I have tried recently)
  • overall, quite simple user interface

What I didn’t like:

  • code is not open source yet; after speaking with Horizontal, they said they will release it as soon as security audit is complted (it was audited previously, but they decided to have it audited again, given there were many changes - very sensible)
  • some usability issues in getting around between different functionalities
  • some wording in the settings is so confusing, I don’t know if I am saying yes to sharing my bug data with them or not
  • I am not convinced of a panic button working in high risk scenarios, but am afraid of both false alarms and failure when push comes to shove

Other observations:

  • it is based on Kobo Toolbox in the backend; that has advantages like the ability to use field-tested software for gathering data; also makes security model somewhat inflexible and has dependency with Open Data Kit, which not everyone sees as a good solution for high-risk environments

I also spent some time with EyeWitness to Atrocities the other day. I should say that the developers behind the app recently told me that a big update is coming, so all of this may be out of date fairly soon. Since the app was last updated in September 2016 in the app store, it’s likely that it will feel differently, even if I am told the overall concept will stay largely the same. Once the update comes out, will share impressions here.

Platform: Android only
Open source: no, but developers are considering it and are open to feedback about this stance
License: all owned by eyeWitness

What problem does it solve:

  • Make it safe and efficient to gather pictures and videos on a phone (and transmit it to a server)

Who is it for?

  • In theory anyone who wants to more safely document on Android for international accountability efforts
  • in practice, organisations having a relationship with eyeWitness with specific cases/situations in mind

Real use cases (based on information from their website):

  • Human rights documentation in conflict areas and leading towards international courts and tribunals

What I like:

  • has a starting set up wizard (but see below)
  • said wizard has thoughtful guidance on security
  • app is encrypted locally (but see below)
  • app is easy to disguise
  • developers say it is regularly security audited, and have offered to share audit reports (not received as of writing)
  • focus on chain of custody for legal proceedings, and working with courts on making sure it is accepted there (no public information on specifics, but privately shared examples)

What I didn’t like:

  • code is not open source; we had multiple discussions, they are open to arguments, but up until now have not changed their stance
  • I am greeted with a long “Terms and Conditions” when opening the app for the first time; the second paragraph is ALL CAPS = legal language for legal professionals, not the friendliest user experience, imho
  • while useful to guide users, the starting wizard is too long in my experience and encourages to swipe through, rather than read
  • data has to be shared with eyeWitness; if you are in a collaboration with them, they offer to have legal arrangements on what they share onwards and how, but overall there is no way to use this app without sharing data; everything can be used for the conditions set out in terms of service;
  • had multiple crashes when trying to go to gallery, making it impossible for me to annotate pictures
  • (edit after response from eyyewitness: could not reproduce this, so possible this happened while I was not in “secure mode”*) pictures taken in the app also appear in my main phone gallery - to me this is unexpected behaviour; this does not happen for video or audio, so perhaps is a bug?
  • Not sure when the pattern to protect the app is even asked for, I can simply open it even after closing it explicitly before
  • edit after further testing: the differentiation between normal and secure mode is something I am not sure is practical and where I see great potential for someone accidentally using the app in an unsafe way (it would have happened to me!); without documentation, it is hard to know how to get into secure mode, and secure mode is not the default; there is a non-neglible chance that an at-risk user will forget (how) to activate it

Thanks for profiling the app! It’s always great to hear what people find works and doesn’t work about the app.

We would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the changes in the upcoming version you referenced. Before doing so, we would like to clarify the purpose of the app. The problem we are addressing is that photo and video captured with a mobile phone can be difficult, or sometimes impossible, to use as reliable evidence in court. The app and storage system have been designed to capture the information in a manner that preserves the chain of custody and facilitates authentication by a court. We want potential users to be clear that the app is not intended as a security tool, rather it is an evidence gathering tool that incorporates security features.

We could not agree more that the registration and tutorial process is too long! I’m pleased to say, it has been entirely revamped in the updated version.

You are correct that the app is designed to ensure that the photos/videos/audio files do not appear in the standard gallery when they are captured with the app in secure mode. However, anything captured when the app is in standard mode will indeed go to the standard gallery rather than the app’s secure gallery. We readily admit that having to switch to secure mode before filming was an overly complicated security feature (although based on feedback we had from human rights defenders at the time). Please let us know if the images you took, that appear in the main phone gallery, were taken in secure mode or standard mode as we of course would want to address any bugs.

Neither the current version nor the new version require a password to enter the app. The passcode set up at registration is for entering the secure gallery (the gallery inside the app). In the current version, the passcode entry screen is hidden under the focus grid (in hindsight, also perhaps a bit over engineered).

We have greatly simplified how individuals capture footage and access the secure gallery in the upcoming release. We have done away with secure mode. Instead, all images taken via the app will appear only in the app’s secure gallery. The app gallery will be accessed via a recognisable gallery icon, which opens the passcode prompt screen. (We’re using a new way to mask the existence of the secure gallery. Stay tuned…)

We will let you know when the new 2019 version of the app is available in the coming weeks as we would welcome your feedback!


Thanks for engaging here! It’s great to hear about some of the upcoming changes and to have more background on the intended use cases. These short posts are meant to be snapshots in time, so I am looking forward to exploring the new version and sharing observations here again.

As for your question on secure mode vs. normal mode when I experienced the issue, I was just trying to reproduce it in both modes and indeed this time it is not saved in the normal gallery. Perhaps I was mistaken, so sorry in that case. I will annotate the post. I will say, however, that I am not sure if differentiating between normal and secure mode by clicking long on the top right corner of the picture frame will work in an expected use without any explicit training on this - I think there could definitely be reminders that when you are in normal mode everything is also accessible in the main gallery. I would have expected secure mode to be the default, but I would be curious if that is an assumption that does not reflect other users reality.

I am really looking forward to the new version, as you have exciting improvements in the pipeline and I can also get to use the features that I don’t have access to, since the app always crashes when I get to the gallery.

Again, thanks for engaging here!

Just to say that the new version of the Eyewitness for Atrocities app is now available on the Google Play store.

What has changed?

  • easier set up; clear explanation of why you would want or not want to give them your contact details (limited to email)
  • there is now a fake pin functionality that can send you to normal picture gallery (presumably when prompted/coerced to open app)
  • complete interface overhaul

What has not changed?

  • first thing that greets you is a legal agreement, and the legal agreement still insists you grant full rights to EyeWitness to use the content with or without giving you credit
  • most practical use case is collaborating with EyeWitness team directly and having agreement on goals and scope
  • app is not open source

What I like:

  • doesn’t crash on my phone!
  • reasonably clear interface for taking in media (some quirks like audio recording not starting right after I click the button, which would have been expected behaviour to me)
  • default is that I decide which info to upload - but there is auto upload functionality – maybe there could be a prompt though when entering gallery first; otherwise I will only see this when I enter settings when I could have had the expectation that it auto uploads

What I didn’t like:

  • there seems to be a lag when taking pictures in the app - got several blurry pictures
  • using my secret pin sent me to standard gallery a few times - not sure, if it is a bug or my fingers

Not sure:

  • there are settings twice: once in app menu, once in gallery - potential to miss it
  • can’t seem to change my contact settings; would love options other than email (Signal, WhatsApp, Wire)
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Thanks for trying the new version of the eyeWitness to Atrocities app. It’s great to hear that you found the new features to be an improvement!

We know the legal agreement can look a little overwhelming. It’s important to us that users, who do not identify themselves and that we cannot contact later, understand that their information will potentially be shared. We’d love to hear ideas for how to do so in a more user friendly manner (but that still include the provisions required by law).

Indeed, the camera is a bit slower than a regular mobile camera. Although, on some makes and models of Android the app camera works faster than others. The reason for the delay is that the app is encrypting the photo to memory as soon as it is taken. If the app did not do this, there is a risk that an unencrypted version could be discoverable temporarily in the local memory on the device. It is possible to avoid blurry photos by ensuring you wait until the camera frame blinks to indicate the photo has been taken.

It’s true that the camera setting menu does not include the same options that are available in the secure gallery settings. The reasoning for that is there are options in the secure gallery menu that reveal that this is the eyeWitness app (for example, change icon, about the app, and help/tutorial options). We believe it would be a security risk to have these options available outside of the secure gallery.

We would love to speak further about the PIN code opening the standard gallery and the share options not including all the platforms you have on your device. This has not been our experience and we did not encounter this during the testing. We would be interested in trying to replicate and troubleshoot the problem. Please send us a direct message on this.

Also, in case it is helpful, we have a short user guide that explains the main features of the new version. It can be found in the Project Materials section of our website -

Thanks again for your feedback about the app!