Bellingcat research collective lets Google cough up state secrets

It was not the intention that the world knew exactly in which bunkers at Volkel Air Base American nuclear weapons are stored. Nevertheless, Foeke Postma, researcher at research collective Bellingcat, managed to to get this out ‘with a good search and a little sleight of hand on Facebook’. That’s how he found public flashcards, with which the soldiers involved learned security protocols by heart. It contained detailed and top-secret information about the exact location of the weapons. It was an exciting case, says Postma. “And yet it actually feels like I didn’t do that much, it was basically a Google search. Still, my findings went around the world, as far as the Pentagon.”

It is a textbook example of the Bellingcat method, which gained fame when researchers in 2017 reconstructed how a Russian Boek missile installation came into the hands of separatists in eastern Ukraine on the basis of images shared on social media. The installation fired the missile that brought down flight MH17 with nearly 300 passengers on board. The researchers also reported on the civil war in Syria and collected evidence that the government was using chemical weapons there.

You can think of Bellingcat as a special form of investigative journalism, the rules of which seem simple: use information that anyone with an internet connection can access. The execution is often complex and the articles read like a Sherlock Holmes-esque detective, with lots of detail and extensive analysis of footage combined with information from public databases such as archives, forums, leaked data, maps and social media. Where does Bellingcat make the difference and can everyone use this method? Why does Bellingcat do this? And do we really have to share so much online?

Cruciale details

One of the most glaring skills often reflected in Bellingcat’s work is figuring out where a photo or video was taken. Details then play a crucial role, says Postma. “Suppose you have a photo of an unknown street and you want to know where it was taken. Perhaps a lamppost will provide a crucial clue. There are a million hobbies and this is the internet. There are probably people with an interest in street lighting. Perhaps there is a database with which you can find out in which cities these lanterns are located.”

Details reveal the location of a photo, such as the trash can in this street on which the Amsterdam logo is visible.

The arsenal of tools for his work is surprisingly small, says Postma. He uses an application to store websites and the rest comes down to search engines, knowledge of the internet and analytical skills. Using public resources is crucial. Bellingcat researchers say they do not infiltrate, take (private) data or even do an interview. They also do not communicate with possible perpetrators during the investigation, but at the end give them a chance to respond to accusations.

The apparent ease with which Bellingcat – more than twenty employees worldwide – sometimes exposes (state) secrets or abuses, is sometimes criticized. “You just did some googling, it sounds like. And yes, that’s right!” says Postma. “But why hasn’t anyone done this before? The information has often been online for years. We all search social media and the internet every day, but people underestimate what you can get out of this. You have googling and good googling. Hopefully this will also show what is on the street.”

How much information could Bellingcat researchers find about you? Below are a few tips to research your presence on the internet.

Footprint on the Internet

There are several platforms you can use to find out how visible you are on the internet. For example, via the HaveIBeenPwned website you can see if your email address was ever involved in a data breach, while you can check which accounts are linked to your email address via the Epieos Tools and WhatsMyName websites.

Specific search on the internet

By using quotation marks around a search term, you tell the search engine that you want to search for exactly that term. For example, by searching for “your name”, you will only find websites and documents in which your name is used in its entirety. You can also ask the search engine to complete data itself. You use an asterisk for this. By searching for example “your first name * your last name”, you could find your middle name.

Using multiple variants

Different authorities also use different forms of your name. For example, an official document will be more likely to use the initials and last name, while other documents may list your full name. By searching on multiple variants of your name, you get a better idea of ​​where you can be found on the internet.

Search on a site or in a file

By using “site:” in your search query, you ensure that the search engine only returns results from a particular website or domain. For example, “Site:nu.nl” only displays results found via nu.nl. With filetype: The search engine only displays results of certain files. For example, if you want to investigate whether financial data about you has been leaked, you can search by filetype:xlsx or filetype:pdf.

Search for sensitive data

If you are looking for sensitive data, you can use certain search terms. For example, you can search by your own name in combination with “for internal use only” or “strict secret”. By using the quotation marks, these terms must appear in the document or on the website.

Exposing bad guys

For Postma, Bellingcat is both a job and a calling; he says he wants to say ‘wrongs and bad guys expose‘. Isn’t he afraid that such a bad guy will one day tell his story? “That sometimes crosses your mind, but you get used to the idea, sort of. The real question to ask is whether this is worth it, and it is. I probably won’t have to travel to Russia for the rest of my life (due to Bellingcat’s investigation into the downing of flight MH17, which he himself was not involved in – red.), but I don’t mind that much,” says Postma.

This investigative method appears to be effective in situations of war, where states have interests and where local journalism is unable to check claims and expose abuses. “Take the war in Syria. Authorities of Syria, Russia and the United States usually have their own readings of events, and interests of their own. With our methodology you can also check things yourself and find out something about it. Without sources on the internet and what citizens share themselves, we would be in the dark about this,” says Postma.

Instagram posts that betray addresses, and apps that leak state secrets about nuclear weapons. Bellingcat shows that you leave many traces in the digital world. Traces that can be used and abused. Is it better to stop sharing information immediately? “People are allowed to tell what they do online, there are also many positive sides to it,” he says. “It goes wrong with massive data-driven influence by one company, or when governments control and punish you extremely for what you share online. This is sometimes a fine dividing line. What you can do yourself to find that balance is review your privacy settings and explore options not to share things with a government or megacorporation, but with friends and family.”


Source: Kennislink by www.nemokennislink.nl.

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