By Laurie Gerhardt
Open source investigation: Using freely available software and web tools to analyse pictures, video, and data to gather information, verify narratives, and provide context to stories.
In July 2012, reflecting on the failure to predict the largest wave of popular uprisings in the 21st century, a US intelligence official remarked “we missed that”. They hadn’t missed what we now call the Arab Spring for lack of CIA agents being embedded in Egyptian intelligence, or insufficient secret wiretapping of political dissidents, but because they hadn’t yet seriously been monitoring a seemingly trivial phenomenon – social media. This oversight meant they had missed tens of thousands of ordinary working Egyptian people expressing what the official would later remark was “a level of dissatisfaction that would fill Tahrir Square” on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. By focussing intelligence operations on the narratives of political elites and overlooking thousands of stories of poverty, anger and frustration shared on social media, the U.S. intelligence community failed to notice the start of a revolution that would reshape the Middle East.
Today, the stories of ordinary people are easier to observe than ever before. Nearly 2.5 billion people have a smartphone. That means that around a third of the world’s population carry a camera and an internet connection with them wherever they go. If you want to have a peek at the daily lives of people in Nairobi, Caracas, or Sana’a, all you have to do is open up Snap Map and click on the heat marks. Most of these snapshots of people’s lives will be relatively unremarkable – someone driving around in their car, making dinner, or watching a gig – but if a political uprising erupted in a city across the world, you could view unaltered human perspectives in almost real-time.
But if you saw a video of a protester being shot, such as this one (allegedly from the 2013 protests in Cairo), you would have to first verify when and where it occurred for it to become newsworthy. Social media videos are often unclear depictions of such events, particularly during chaotic moments of conflict or protest, and the spectre of ‘fake news’ now hangs over every online video and article. But by using a combination of Google Maps, historical weather records and MS Paint, you could pinpoint the exact time and location of a video.
To verify the location where the protester was shot, the investigator in the example above used geolocation. While this is the basis of lots of open source investigations, it’s just one of many tools that can be used to gather information that others may prefer to keep hidden. Other examples include image and video analysis, radio signal monitoring (to observe the private jets of the uber-wealthy) or using a fitness app’s public data to discover secret U.S. drone bases.
The History: from WWII to your laptop
Open source investigation today relies on modern technology and big data, but it is not actually a new phenomenon. During World War II, the American ‘Office for Strategic Services’, or OSS (which would later become the CIA), made extensive use of open source information techniques through its Research and Analysis branch. OSS operatives spent months reading and dissecting German newspapers, journals, and radio broadcasts in the hope that they could locate weaknesses in the Nazi war machine. Ultimately this helped them to discover the vulnerabilities of German oil production, supposedly helping the Allies win the war. As a result, the latter half of the 20th century saw open source information-gathering become part of the framework of state intelligence operations.
Today, open source investigation is no longer purely the remit of state intelligence services but is used by private investigators, civil society organisations, investigative journalists and, more importantly, anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection. Instead of traveling the world to rifle through newspaper clippings, analysts can use geolocation techniques from the comfort of their own home. Regular people can help EUROPOL locate child abusers using only google maps and a picture, uncover the truth behind the killing of political dissidents like Jamal Khashoggi, or expose the war crimes of the US-led bombing of Raqqa, Syria. The enormous scale of open source information offers an opportunity for citizen journalists and amateur sleuths to question the narratives of the powerful and locate the truth in a sea of misinformation.
Attempts to undermine or question the narratives of powerful groups are now often met with claims of ‘fake news’, so open source investigators are keen to stress the importance of transparency. Analysts meticulously record the steps they take to reach their conclusions, inviting the doubtful or the curious to replicate their methodology. In their investigation of the 2018 Salisbury Novichok poisonings, the open source investigation organisation Bellingcat published the hundreds of steps they took to determine the perpetrators responsible for the attack. Beginning with just the initial passport photos of the suspects released by British police, they scanned through Aeroflot passenger manifests, school photos, and corporate residence listings to ultimately link the two alleged tourists back to the Russian state intelligence directorate, drawing the ire of the Russian foreign ministry itself. As open source analyst Nick Waters puts it, ‘Google Maps is a better spy than James Bond’.
As well as emphasising transparency, the open source community highly values communally organised projects that anyone can take part in. Investigators encourage a crowdsourcing approach to research projects, offering guides, training, tools, and advice to those who want to get involved. Amnesty International concluded their first community-led open source project called Strike Tracker, which crowdsourced the verification of bombs dropped on Raqqa, Syria, by comparing satellite images before and after the days of the US bombing campaign against ISIS which destroyed 80% of the city. To verify breaking news in real-time, the Check Project lets anyone start their own open citizen journalist team and collaborate on projects. The possibilities of open source investigation are still being discovered and will presumably grow further as the technology itself develops.
Surveillance Technology and Society
Whether we like it or not, surveillance technology and the global flow of data are now a part of society. In a world where you can be tracked on your phone even if you’ve said ‘no’ to location services, and pizza takeaways can use facial recognition software to monitor customers’ consumption habits, it feels like there’s little chance of evading surveillance technology. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Sometimes it’s better not to expend your energy fighting against something that has already gathered momentum, but instead to try to channel it somewhere useful.
Melvin Kranzberg’s first law of technology states that “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” While the future of surveillance, big data, and behavioural technology is likely to be really quite grim, there are at least some ways in which we can use these same tools to fight back against those injustices by offering a bit of their utility back to ordinary people. Open source investigation is one such way for expansive surveillance and data technology to be used to re-centre the voices of the oppressed, expose state criminality, and disrupt the narratives of the powerful.