The Starling Lab is using decentralized technology to preserve evidence of human rights abuses, starting with 55,000 testimonials from genocide survivors

Over the next few years, the world is expected to transition to Web 3.0, a radically different version of the internet where innovations like blockchain technology and artificial intelligence are ubiquitous. Jonathan Dotan, founding director of the Starling Lab, says we must acknowledge the possibilities for harm in this new paradigm while embracing the opportunities for positive change.

“It’s really inspiring, and at the same time, it’s also daunting. Content moderation on Web 3.0, it’s not simple. Inclusion and access for the underrepresented, it’s still hard. Stamping out hate, even harder. Look, we’re going to screw this up,” he said during a talk at Unfinished Live. “And that’s okay, because Web 3.0, it’s not an answer. It’s just simply an opportunity.” 

The Starling Lab, which was developed jointly by Stanford University and the University of California’s Shoah Foundation, is working to preserve records related to atrocities like the Holocaust using blockchain tech. The first project is uploading 55,000 video testimonials from genocide survivors.

Dotan says the initiative shows how Web 3.0 isn’t just about building a decentralized network with lots of different connections — the actual data being shared and safeguarded is just as important. “That’s what people often miss,” said Dotan.

Watch the full talk below, and scroll for a written transcript. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Statements by these speakers have not been fact-checked by Unfinished and represent their individual opinions.

Jonathan Dotan

I normally don’t do this, but today I wanted to dedicate this talk to my grandfather because he would have loved this story. So instead, I’ll tell it to you. And as I tell you the story, I’d like to invite you to ponder this question. Whose story is this? Now, our story begins with a number 69,388. And if you’re wondering what that number is, well, you might go to the internet. You’re all aware of the internet, right? Okay. Well, we can go and we can do a search on the internet and we might say, “Okay, well, what do we find?” So we could find, for instance, this cobalt blue beehive lamp or this handy-dandy Bosch automotive fuel pump, or we could find this design for a beautiful set of plans for a Southwest-style home, design number 69,388.

But our story, it’s not about any of these things. In this story, that number was given to a 18-year-old girl. Her name is Anita. And it’s not a number that she chose, in fact, she never ever even thought about that number until a very, very cold day in December of 1943. You see, Anita had been standing in a long line with other girls and women from what was known as the welcoming ceremony at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. There, Anita was stripped naked, her head was shaven, and a young girl standing before her hands trembling lifted a pen with a needle on the end of it. And as neatly as she could, the girl inscribed five digits into Anita’s left forearm which began to swell and bleed, 69,388. “In the space of a few minutes,” Anita says, “I had been stripped of every single vestige of human dignity and become indistinguishable from everyone around me.”

She was no longer a person. She was a number. As far as the Nazis were concerned, that number, it told them everything they needed to know about Anita, her entire life story reduced to just five digits. And best of all, it could track both the living and also the dead. But that number, the number wasn’t Anita. It was a lie. One of the many lies of hatred and prejudice that formed antisemitism that brought Anita to the gates of Auschwitz. And in today’s internet, Web 2.0, these lies, they continue to proliferate in a web of misinformation and mistrust. They are even recommended to you. Innovation has outstripped wisdom and as big data and big platforms have grown so big, they’ve overwhelmed the truth and left unchecked, tomorrow the web, well, it could be filled with even more lies. And imagine this for a minute, what this might look like. Deep fakes, which videos of Holocaust survivors’ words and likeness are manipulated to somehow prove that the Holocaust never happened. That could be the future.

So what are we going to do about it? Well, looking at the alternatives and the prospect of a decentralized web, at once it’s really inspiring, and at the same time, it’s also daunting. Content moderation on Web 3.0, it’s not simple. Inclusion and access for the underrepresented, it’s still hard. Stamping out hate, even harder. Look, we’re going to screw this up. I said it. Here it is. And that’s okay because Web 3.0, it’s not an answer. It’s just simply an opportunity. At my lab at Stanford and the USC Shoah Foundation, we are working with historians and journalists and war crimes prosecutors to seize this opportunity to leverage and shape Web 3.0. We believe there is a clear and intuitive and attainable starting point. For us, it’s clear. Use Web 3.0 to preserve the integrity of the world’s most sensitive data.

And we are starting with 55,000 authentic video testimonies for those who have survived genocide. These testimonies bear witness from survivors from the Holocaust and also 10 different genocide collections spanning from Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, mass atrocities that are even unfolding today in Myanmar. This task is not easy. And as we speak, we are in the process of uploading the full archive. It’s four petabytes worth of information all onto the decentralized web. So from what had been stored in just three data centers today, we are now expanding to hundreds and soon thousands. This effort is the largest ingestion of data onto the DWeb in the world. And the very first testimony that’s going to be on this network, well, it’s from Anita. Over two hours of her telling her story. And to be clear, this is not committed capacity of arbitrary data. It’s not random math to create consensus.

At each step, we are using productive, distributed ledger technology that can ensure that as the data of Anita’s testimony is spread all over the world, we can trust it with mathematical proofs of space, time that mark its authenticity with a number. So what kind of authenticity is this mark? Well, it’s not simply a stamp from a centralized authority, like let’s say a tattoo on someone’s arm. This is a different type of number. It is intrinsically authentic because it is derived from her. It is derived from her voice. What we do is we take every bit of data from Anita’s testimony and we pass it through an algorithm. It’s a one way algorithm that allows us to create on the other end of it, a persistent number, a hash, but not just any hash. We are creating a content ID that allows it to be optimized so that you have a resilient identifier that represents the file wherever it lives.

So you don’t need Google to find it or Amazon to host it or Facebook to share it. That number, it can do all on its own. And with the CID on the DWeb, you’ll always find Anita’s exact testimony, plus you’ll have a record of its origin, its authenticity. Therefore, its wisdom is intact. For Anita’s video, it has a universe of wisdom and it answers so many of our questions. For instance, what was she like before she came to Auschwitz? In fact, that is the very question that she was asked after she was given her tattoo. The girl who processed her turned to her casually and asked, “What did you do before the war?” Without thinking, Anita replied, “I was a cellist.” “You must wait here.” The girl said. And so Anita stands there naked just holding a toothbrush. Looking up, she sees showerheads above her. And as the room empties out, she’s suddenly alone. And she’s heard the rumors about the gas chambers and so she thinks to herself, “Well, this is it.”

But after a few minutes, the girl returns with an older and surprisingly well-dressed woman who begins peppering Anita with all sorts of questions, all of them about the cello. This prisoner is the conductor of the women’s orchestra of Auschwitz and the orchestra needs a cellist. So several days later, an SS guard arrives to take Anita to her audition. He doesn’t ask for a prisoner 69,388. “Bring me the cellist.” He says instead. Then for the first time in two years, Anita holds a cello and it takes a minute for her fingers to reacquaint themselves with the strings. And then she starts her audition by playing this piece, the Adagio of Boccherini’s Cello Concerto, No.9.

Anita would play with the orchestra each morning for thousands of inmates marching to work and to their death. She was commanded to play a solo for Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death in Auschwitz. This piece, this music, it saved her life and miraculously, it helped Anita save the life of her sister who joined her at Auschwitz just a few weeks later. Think about it. Just this piece. As Anita said, Hitler destroyed so much, but music, music is indestructible. At the lab we were so moved by these words and soon, it became for us, not just an article of faith, but it became a roadmap for a prototype. If you go to and you download a file there, it’s this rendition, this rendition of Anita’s audition piece as played by Yo-Yo Ma. It’s his gift to you, a musical tribute to Anita’s incredible story. So working with Yo-Yo Ma and his team, we looked at this recording and we reimagined it as a vessel.

Already, this vessel holds through the language of music, Anita’s experience. But now there’s something else. In the header of the file, we embedded the content ID of Anita’s video testimony, the mark of her authenticity of her testimony. And that might seem like an unlikely place to store a CID, but actually it’s the safest because of who downloads it and why. At the beginning of this talk, I asked you whose story is this? Well, surely it’s Anita’s story. But by downloading this prototype, now it’s your story and your story and your story. It’s our story. Each of us and all of us have this precious number, Anita’s CID and we are the keepers of the authenticity of her testimony. And so therefore, we are all now nodes on the decentralized web. We have everything we need. And I think that’s what people often miss. When they think of the decentralized web, they focus on the network and all the different connections within it. But for me, I always start with the nodes themselves.

And I think about the hashes that they create. For I see them for what they are. Not a number in a crypto wallet, not a record of transactions or a number that represents an NFT. No, at the core, a hash is the expression of humans. And I believe that the new web will only truly begin when we bring this sense of purpose and humanity, not unbridled optimism, not quick fixes, but look, don’t take it from me. Take it from Anita. She’s 96 years old. She’s alive. She’s well. Her story is now part of the foundation of the decentralized web. And she says it’s not about numbers. It’s about people.

[A video now plays showing Anita]


It’s important that people identify with people when we talk about the Holocaust, because I always feel this idea of 6 million dead people is totally futile. There’s no concept of that. But the generation that come after us, if they talk about the Holocaust and just think of 6 million people, it becomes a dead territory. I think these interviews are important for the people to see that we were actually people and totally normal people and nothing wrong with us, coming from totally normal families, being reduced to what we were reduced to, which led to this unprecedented mass murder that the Holocaust is.