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Starling Lab: Establishing Trust for Humanity’s Data

Today, the USC Shoah Foundation and Stanford University unveil the Starling Lab, a new research center tackling the technical and ethical challenges of establishing trust in the most sensitive digital records of our human history, using the latest advances in cryptography and decentralized web protocols.

With an initial commitment of $2 million of funding from Protocol Labs and the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web, The Starling Lab is the first center in the world dedicated to using decentralized tools to advance human rights.

Today’s announcement comes nearly three years since the teams at Protocol Labs began working with researchers at Stanford and USC. Together we’ve launched the most comprehensive set of tools and principles to advance human rights with decentralized web technologies.

Yet, the world has changed since we started. Current events have laid bare the importance of trust for progress in social justice and science. From the fight to end systemic racism to the push for fair and democratic elections and limiting the spread of COVID-19, digital documentation has emboldened these movements.

It is also clear how vulnerable digital documents remain in an age where trust in digital media has plummeted. Bits alone can’t solve this crisis. The human rights community recognizes it needs new tools and values to meet these challenges. While many are just a keystroke away, what is needed is a next generation impact lab to develop the tools and education for them to succeed.

If you are interested in working with the Starling Lab to capture, store, verify and preserve valuable data sets should visit to learn more about training, educational, and grant opportunities.

Online Disinformation

There is a tidal wave of digital information: Anyone can capture media with a smartphone or camera, and limited tools exist to prevent individuals from altering captured data or attributing it incorrectly prior to them choosing to share it.

It’s easy to manipulate data: A host of artificial intelligence tools, “deep fake” technology, and other applications make it easy for parties to change written, photographic, and videographic data and obscure records of altercation.

It’s difficult to verify data: Current internet solutions do not offer an easy and comprehensive way for individuals to verify data integrity in a sustainable and trustworthy way at a global scale.

The Starling Lab

In collaboration with the USC Shoah Foundation and Stanford University, Starling Lab is deploying technology and methods that make the decentralized internet a viable platform for social impact. The Starling Lab was conceived to address the need to:

  1. Provide a way for individuals to capture their crowdsourced data to establish a chain of custody from the start;
  2. Store data in a way that is decentralized and cannot be manipulated or altered; and
  3. Provide the ability to verify data trustlessly.

Core to The Starling Lab solution is the Starling Framework, a set of open-source prototypes, best practices, and case studies that help to reduce information uncertainty in digital media. The Starling Framework rests on the fundamental need to capture, store, and verify information to protect its integrity.


Within Capture, a combination of hardware (HTC) and software (IPFS and Filecoin) technologies have been prototyped to create a chain of custody from the cameras to digital platforms. Images are paired with metadata from an array of sensors on the device to prove footage was taken at a specific time, date, and location. All this footage is then cryptographically hashed, creating a content identifier (CID) that serves as a unique fingerprint of that footage.


Within Store, data is replicated onto decentralized storage nodes, such as IPFS and Filecoin, which natively use content identifiers (CIDs) for addressability. If a single pixel is changed, the cryptographic algorithm will generate a completely different hash for the footage.


Within Verify, to deal with all the hashes generated during the capture and storage processes, the Starling Framework has a hash/certification management system that lets organizations engage multiple experts to verify footage.

Starling Lab in Action

The Starling Framework for Data Integrity has already been deployed by the Starling Lab in three major case studies:

Protecting Election Coverage Showcase

The teams at Starling Lab and Reuters deployed the Starling Framework during the 2020 California Primary to explore how cryptography can enable and protect the work of their photojournalists in an era of misinformation.

Reuters journalists explored prototypes to establish the provenance of photographs and make them more trusted by the public. Reuters used a Starling capture phone app in addition to their Canon cameras, which allowed journalists to simultaneously hash the metadata - including the barometer, the gyroscope, the GPS data - and send all the information to Reuters. The result is a chain of information verifying that a photo was taken in the place and at the time Reuters says it was. Learn More.

78 Days: Creating A Photographic Archive of Trust

For 78 days, the teams at Starling Lab and Reuters documented the US presidential transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden with an array of new image authentication technologies and decentralized web protocols.

Using the Starling Framework and the new Content Authenticity Initiative’s attribution standard, Starling Lab created a prototype archive which allowed each photo to become a container of image pixels and additional metadata and links. Visit 78 Days

The Genocide Testimony Showcase

The teams at Starling Lab and the USC Shoah Foundation deployed the Starling Framework to cryptographically capture the testimonies of genocidal survivors from the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the Rohingya crisis.

To address these needs, the team first uploaded all of the USC Shoah Foundation’s current data to IPFS and Filecoin so that it could be protected through decentralization on-chain. As more and more individuals engage with the content and contribute to storing it, the file seals become more secure and the historical records become more resilient.

Next, the team employed the Starling Framework to capture new interviews from survivors. Using mobile phones and DSLR cameras, the teams were able to Capture, Store, and Verify content right from the start, protecting the data and metadata of the interviews and storing it securely on IPFS and Filecoin. All of these videos have been added to the USC Shoah Foundation archives. Learn More.

To learn more about the Starling Lab, see here.

Starling Lab is hiring! View open roles.

Apply to be part of Starling Lab and build within the Starling Framework. More information here.

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