The internet is vast; and in this vastness we can easily get lost. The key is knowing what you are looking for, why you are looking for it and how you’re going to make use of it. Because most companies have an online presence and the vast majority of them rely on online services, open source research — which relies on publicly available information — can be particularly useful when investigating corporate actors.
However, finding information online is only part of the process — you will have to discern between what appears to be interesting information and what can eventually become “evidence” to be introduced in court proceedings against the corporate target. The gap between these two is significant, and not one that can always be overcome. But remember that what you find on your way to identifying evidence can help you build the puzzle of your investigation.
Investigations are like puzzles: it will take you time to see the whole picture.
1. The basics
If you are new to investigating, the Citizen Evidence Lab at Amnesty International provides a free, 2-part training (total of 3 hours) on “Open Source Investigations for Human Rights“. The course introduces you to methods and best-practice of open source research, and the ways that these new methods of information gathering can be used for human rights reporting and documentation.
You can also reference Tactical Tech’s Exposing the Invisible Kit, which “is a starting point for those who believe in the power of information as evidence but who recognise that working with information does not necessarily lead to immediate results or desired changes.” The Kit is meant to “help people develop the ability to question information that is false, find information when it is scarce and filter information when it becomes overwhelming.”
Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations: Although not a guide per se — and certainly not one for beginners — the Protocol provides basic information on the effective use of digital open source information when investigating violations of international criminal, human rights and humanitarian law.
2. Open source research for corporate investigations
Open source research is useful for all human rights investigations, although there are certain skills, tools and approaches that will be particularly relevant when investigating corporate crime.
Analyzing complex networks
First, analyzing complex networks is essential when you’re investigating organized crime with corporate links. But large-scale illicit networks can be difficult to visualize and understand.
- For those just starting out with coding, Maltego provides an open source alternative, giving investigators a way to quickly and easily visualize their material.
- For those with coding skill, neo4j is a great way to visualize large, complicated datasets to visualize the relationships between different entities.
Historical website information
You’re investigating a company and realize that they have recently changed their website hiding some of the useful information you thought you had seen just a week ago. Websites can change, but oftentimes historic information is captured and retrievable. The following resources can help find information that has changed for particular websites of interest:
- Google Cache: If a certain website isn’t working or loading, it may be accessible through Google Cache, Google’s backup snapshot system. To view the cached version of a website that appears in Google search results, click the three dots to the right of the result and then click cache (detailed instructions available here). Alternatively, search Google for “cache:” followed by the site address.
- The Wayback Machine: The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine archives web pages through a web crawler and through user contributions, all of which are fully accessible to search on their platform if you have the URL of the site in question.
- Archive.is: Archive.is also archives webpages, and uses a technology that allows for the capture of sites that the Wayback Machine cannot. Therefore, if a site is not on the Wayback Machine, it may be on Archive.is.
Digital verification of images and video
Digital verification is particularly important for corporate investigations if you’re hoping to use the information you’ve collected in legal proceedings. Nothing found on the internet can be submitted as evidence if you have not authenticated and verified it first.
- Bellingcat’s Digital Verification toolkit provides a comprehensive list of tools you can use for image and video verification.
- But, as The Citizen Evidence Lab, warns us, beware of your “bias” when conducting research, something to keep in mind when you start investigating (Part 1 and Part 2). This series looks at “the potential for information bias to influence an investigation and the importance of mitigating such biases when designing an effective research methodology.”
Reverse imagery analysis
Images contain a wealth of information, and, depending on the type of image, there are a variety of data sources, tools, and methodologies that can be used to extract information from them. Reverse image search is a tool that some web browsers offer, through which users can upload an image to the browser, search, and results will include websites with that image, similar images, images with similar objects, and so on. This can be helpful for identifying individuals or objects in images, among other things. Reverse image analysis allows you, in two-clicks, to match an image you have to one or more identical or similar images online.
- The Citizen Evidence Lab’s useful guide on how to use reverse image serach for human rights investigations is a good tool to help you started.
- Bellingcat provides an extensive guide on how best to use reverse image search for investigations. Significantly, Bellingcat notes that the undisputed leader of reverse image search is not Google, but rather Yandex, a Russian site.
Context Clues: Deriving information about individuals, locations, or other facets of information from images can be rewarding as well as time-consuming. Being persistent and detail-oriented about identifying clues in images – such as geographical features, street or store names, weather, and so on – can help investigators gain more information from high-value images. Photos can be compared with satellite imagery, shadow maps, or other open source information to locate where they were taken.
Smart searches: Using “boolean operators”
Sometimes, highly relevant information is freely accessible on the Web, if you know how and where to look. Google, as well as many other search engines, allow users to use “Boolean Operators” to refine and target their searches. For example, using quotation marks turns the search John Doe, which would return a very large number of results that include either John, or Doe, or both, though not necessarily together, into “John Doe”, which would only return results that include the exact phrase John Doe. Other Boolean operators can make searches accommodate unknown letters or words; search within a single website; search specific file types; and so on. A list of Boolean operators supported by Google can be found here.
3. Supply chain open-source research tools
Vessel tracking data
If you are investigating the movement of people or goods through sea, then vessel tracking data can serve as a formidable tool. This data is collected from vessels’ Automatic Identification System (AIS), providing details on the vessel’s identity, precise location, direction, activity and even weight changes. AIS data can be used to chart the movement of vessels illegally transporting smuggled goods from a conflict zone to a licit market. But AIS data has also been used to investigate forced labour on ships, illegal fishing and movement of sanctioned goods, among others.
For real-time vessel movement data check the Marine Traffic and Vessel Finder apps for free (or others found here). For historical data, however, you will likely have to pay a fee unless you find a partner organization with subsidized access.
Information about vessels can largely be grouped into two categories – registration information about vessels and their management, and information about their movement.
- Registration Information: Most vessels that are either large or sail internationally are registered with an International Maritime Organization (IMO) number, and are therefore searchable in Equasis, which contains information about a vessel’s identifiers, country of registration, and managing companies. Equasis is a free website that requires registration. Vessels that aren’t registered with an IMO number (including smaller fishing vessels and pleasure craft) may still have relevant information published through Regional Fishery Management Organizations, vessel spotting websites, or country-specific vessel registries.
- Vessel Movement: Vessels transmitting AIS signal can be tracked in real time or historically through free and paid sites such as MarineTraffic, Fleetmon, VesselTracker, and Global Fishing Watch. Additionally, some countries publish real time or historical information about the vessels calling at their ports.
Aircraft tracking data
As with vessels, information about planes can be gleaned from registration data and plane movement. Unfortunately, no global registry of planes exists, though some countries have publicly available lists or databases. Plane movement can be tracked through platforms including ADS-B Exchange, Icarus Flights, and Flightradar24. As with vessels, there exists a vigorous plane-spotting community that uploads images of planes spotted around the world.
Special thanks to C4ADS, one of the Corporate Crimes Hub partners, for their help in preparing the content of this Toolbox page.