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Shweta Jain’s new project helps you to believe what you see online


Photo: Courtesy of Shweta Jain

These days, image and video manipulation is widespread, and not always easy to spot. Dr. Shweta Jain, an associate professor in computer science, has come up with a timely answer to this problem: eWitness, an app that relies on blockchain technology to authenticate original content. The app, which can work as a stand-alone application or be built into other platforms, works not by encryption but by embedding a “hash” into the image or video that is recorded on a blockchain ledger. The image, no matter whom you share it with, retains that proof of authenticity and can therefore be verified by anyone with the app.

Dr. Jain began work on eWitness in 2016, the same year she came to John Jay. The app was “a project conceived before its time,” as the harmful potential of “deepfakes,” or synthesized human images and videos altered using machine learning, really only started becoming clear in the public eye in 2017. Deepfakes’ many sinister applications mean there are multiple areas where eWitness can make a difference, but they all have one thing in common: user-generated content that is subject to the risk of forgery.

While the pilot launch in May 2019 focused mainly on journalists and the media, Jain has already received inquiries from insurance companies and real estate agencies. She believes the most popular use could be in law enforcement, to verify images from body cams, surveillance and crime scene photographs. She has even identified one arena where eWitness could be an everyday hero: verifying the profile pictures of potential matches on online dating apps! Jain predicts that eventually eWitness will serve as the industry standard for authenticating still and video images online.

Jain, whose background is in computer networks and security, has received tons of support for her idea. Following a quarter-million-dollar grant in 2017 from the National Science Foundation, the eWitness team was accepted into the 2019 Combine Cohort at NYC Media Lab, a start-up accelerator for projects run by entrepreneurial university professors. That means that Jain is not only the Principal Investigator (PI) of her research project, but also a CEO/CTO-to-be vetting multiple investment offers.