Just as the Internet has provided unimagined opportunities for sinister forces to spy on our affairs, it gives citizens the means to shine a spotlight on the criminal and the corrupt.
One of the hitmen, Dr Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin, had sought to erase his digital footprint entirely, but was identified by digital searches of historic St Petersburg residents directories, Moscow telephone and vehicle insurance databases, and photo matching of passport records.
Increasingly, in an online world where almost nothing goes unrecorded, there is no place left for killers to hide in anonymity.
So the BBC’s Africa Eye investigations unit was able last month to name the perpetrators of a filmed atrocity in a remote village in Cameroon by using techniques in geolocation (satellite pictures), chronolocation (studying the sun’s position in online pictures), and social media analysis.
The Cameroon government had previously dismissed the viral video, showing its soldiers murdering a group of women and children, as “fake news”. The BBC team led by Aliaume Leroy and Ben Strick, supported by citizen journalists, Bellingcat investigators and Amnesty International researchers, outed the killers using open source methods.
Modern war crimes are unlikely to go undetected. Ethnic cleansing in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo this year was monitored remotely by Malachy Browne’s New York Times Visual Investigations Team, which used NASA satellites to decipher burned villages.
‘Truth in a post-truth world’
Bellingcat, which began as the humble Brown Moses blog, is the subject of an upcoming film documentary. “The Bellingcat Method: Truth in a Post-Truth World” has been produced in the Netherlands where the Leicester-based website is admired for its work on the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH17 (shot down by a Russian missile) in 2014.
The site encourages public-spirited citizens to adopt its methods in ‘Bellingcat’s Online Investigation Toolkit’, a 19-page document citing dozens of databases, mapping services and techniques for sifting photos and social networks.
Eliot Higgins, the former finance worker who founded Bellingcat, believes “there’s definitely a lot more” that large news organisations could do to deploy open source investigation in their work.
“This doesn’t have to be about big international topics, I think there’s a lot smaller local press could do with online open source investigations to report on issues that affect their readers,” he tells me. “We’re working on developing projects at the moment that will allow us to engage more with local media.”
Alastair Reid has been hired by the Press Association (PA) as its social media journalist and recently used open source methods to expose how the former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson received £20,000 in Bitcoin donations after being jailed this year. Robinson posted on his YouTube videos details of his Bitcoin account, which lists all transactions.
Reid expects open source techniques to expand rapidly. “I don’t think it will be many years before it’s something that every journalist will have working use of.”
Open source methods exposed white supremacist thug Daniel Borden by matching mole patterns on his neck, seen in photos at a violent rally in Charlottesville last year, with old social media pictures flagged by former classmates. Borden was found guilty of malicious wounding. Bellingcat has compiled a secure archive of videos from the rally to prevent the data being destroyed.
Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, describes Bellingcat’s work as “thrilling” and has asked Higgins for training. She says that tracking methods that were once the domain of snooping authoritarian regimes can now be used by citizens “to find out what the security services are doing”.
As someone who has overseen painstaking TV investigations into ethnic cleansing campaigns and war crimes, she believes open source tools offer a potential breakthrough in bringing perpetrators to justice. “Even if you’ve aged and are wearing a beard they will be able to find you,” she says. “Evil people should now be slumbering fitfully because the tools are there to find them out.”
Louisa Compton, commissioning editor of Channel 4’s Dispatches, sees open source as part of an expanding technology-driven arsenal that includes drone cameras and mobile filming. She praises the transparency of Bellingcat’s reporting. “Being able to show your working is so important to the audience and that’s something we want to do more.”
This detailed methodology gives Bellingcat’s reports a detective narrative that appeals to modern audiences, which are showing renewed appetite for long-form investigations in film and podcast.
After years of budget cuts, investigative reporting has the wind in its sails once more. But these same open source tools are freely available to everyone, from NGOs to victims of crime. Citizen journalism has truly arrived.
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