AUBREY BYRON
I can't tell you how many times I've mispronounced a word because I've only encountered it in books.

SHANNON RAGAN
Here's the book. Yeah, the books. To only having to read.

[music plays]

AUBREY BYRON
Welcome to Needlestack, the podcast for professional online research. I'm Aubrey Byron, Needlestack producer and your host for Today.

SHANNON RAGAN
And I'm Shannon Reagan, fellow needlestack producer. And I will be your arm chair expert for today.

AUBREY BYRON
Do you have a good chair on your arm?

SHANNON RAGAN
I actually have no arms for my chair, so try to get points deducted immediately.

AUBREY BYRON
We're taking over the podcast for two weeks to give our talent a little holiday time off and talk about one of our favorite subjects. But I think you see behind me, perhaps the next two episodes will be a special book club edition of the show. So follow along for fun research tips and maybe find your next great read.

SHANNON RAGAN
I think I found my next great read. So, yes, today is our book club. Today is my book club. Aubrey will be doing her book club next week. This is why we're drinking wine at two in the afternoon. Or not quite wine. They have two is. Don't tell them. My book club book is we are Bellingcat. This organization, if you're not familiar, many of our viewers and listeners probably are, is the darling of the OSINT community. There have been lots of recommendations for this book on the OSINT community at large. I have now succumbed. I'm piling on to those recommendations. It was fascinating. I was interested in Bellingcat for a long time, mostly through news articles, like, really just seeing kind of the outcome of their research and the end finding. But I've been getting more into following researchers on Twitter, following Elliot Higgins, and really seeing how the sausage is made, which this book gets into a lot of sausage making.

AUBREY BYRON
Awesome. So start us off. Who is Elliott Higgins and why did he write this book?

SHANNON RAGAN
Yes, Elliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and author of Leader Bellingcat. He is a college dropout. He was a stay at home dad for a time. So he really started doing these OSINT investigations, open source intelligence investigations, in his spare time while he was working as an Admin, while he was unemployed and everywhere in between. And eventually it became the Brown Moses blog was kind of the first iteration of pulling all this data together into something formal and then that eventually turned into the Bellingcat organization. I think what is really interesting about Higgins in this book is that his detractors often try to pin the armchair expert insult to him, and he's like, yeah, I'm not really like an expert in anything but open source research, and that is the advantage, not the detraction. So his curiosity and lack of expertise and love of open source is really what fuels this stuff. So the book itself is how he turned that passion into the formation of Belling cat.

AUBREY BYRON
That's an interesting point of view.

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah.

AUBREY BYRON
So tell us a little bit more about Bellingcat and kind of the goal of that organization.

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah. So there is a part, I think it's like the last page, the end of the book of We Are Bellingcat is basically saying, it's really hard to define who we are. There's a quote at the end of the book that is kind of a lack of definition, but this is it. It says, today Bellingcat finds itself in an unusual position. We are not exactly journalists, nor human rights activists, nor computer scientists, nor activists, nor academic researchers, nor criminal investigators, but are the nexus of all of these disciplines. So I think at a base level, you can call them an investigative journalist organization, but it really is all of these things and includes people from all of these practices to conduct the investigations. So it's very multifaceted and speaks to the changing and evolving nature of open source investigations. The motto of Bellingcat for any of our listeners out there, there is a grand prize, is Identify, verify, amplify. So they're finding this information on open sources, verifying if it is true or not, and then when they find it to be true, to amplify that information. And they do that to support things like investigative journalism, which they themselves do.

SHANNON RAGAN
They have the site Bellingcat.com, but also to support legal cases, academic study as well. And then I think the other big thing that the book gets at is just the effort to counteract the counterfactual community is how Higgins identifies it, which obviously is a huge problem in national discourse today around the world, certainly here in the US. This counterfactual community that kind of sneers at intelligence.

AUBREY BYRON
So what is the counterfactual community?

SHANNON RAGAN
The counterfactual community, in this terms of sneers at intelligence, is this belief that everything can be manipulated. And organizations like Bell and Cat are manipulating, and they only exist to serve Western narratives. They believe that anything can be evidence. They claim to use videos and images to back up their claims. They're doctoring theirs, so they just assume everyone else is doctoring theirs as well. It leads to this, like, endless questioning question everything. They bring up Russia today a lot in this book whose motto is question everything and that nothing can be trusted or verified, for that matter. Which I think is what's so frustrating in Oson is that the work is not just finding stuff, but verifying if it's true or not. They believe that everything is corrupt, the game is rigged the world over, et cetera. But Higgins and Bellingcat, I think, are really pushing that this not be the dominant voice because of the wealth of information is out there, because of the people that can be involved in the OSINT effort. It doesn't have to be the dominant voice. If it is, it's incredibly depressing and just wrong. So we kind of have the power to do this, to overcome the skepticism.

SHANNON RAGAN
Here's how we do it and here's how we used it in investigating these cases that he looks at in the book.

AUBREY BYRON
So what are some of the cases that they talk about in the book? Because they've been involved in some pretty interesting research in the past.

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah, to say the least, it goes back pretty far. It does go chronologically for the most part. It starts with the uprisings against Moramar Gaddafi and Bashar al Assad and the subsequent conflicts that played out thereafter. It looks at the downing of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine, which is really how I started hearing about Bellingcat through the news articles of that investigation goes into the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. And another of the really in depth ones is the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in London. Each of these is laid out, the investigation of them is laid out very in depth in the book, showing the tactics that they employed to identify, verify, and amplify this information. So that is the fascinating part of the book, in addition to the story of how Bellingat itself came out of these investigations.

AUBREY BYRON
Well, speaking of tactics, did they kind of walk you through what kind of tools or techniques they're using in the book?

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah, I think there's a lot to learn from the book. In addition to just the interest value, each investigation kind of focuses on almost a different aspect. I would say, like the Libya one that comes up first. He's really just getting started and focusing on geolocating video footage. So this is prebelling cat. This is just Elliot Higgins in his bathrobe at his desk. It's, you know, very grassroots oath. So he lays out this one story that I found, like, really interesting and really just gets at the heart of what geolocating is that he is watching a video of rebel forces claiming that they have taken over this town and riding around the town. The government is like, no, that's not true. We still hold this town. Like, don't don't trust this. This is not real. And so, you know, based on lots of details around the video, one of the things that he does is map out all of the roads and intersections and landmarks that they're passing, like, in the background of this, like, Joyride Conqueror video. And with that, he just sketches it out on a piece of paper and then goes to Google Earth, looks at the purported town, and starts trying to match these intersections and landmarks.

SHANNON RAGAN
He scours what he's drawn versus Google Maps and the satellite imagery to see if it matches the purported location. And it does. And I think the tip that he really gives from this, you're seeing the logistics of how to do the geolocation, but he's also talking about how this process kind of takes out the messiness of three dimensions that you're taking a video that there's a lot of emotion in there's, a lot of humanness in it and trying to approach it from just the cold, hard facts. So he says he's not an arabic speaker, so he can't understand what they're saying, but it almost helps in some sense because you're not distracted by the emotion of it. You're just looking at does the satellite imagery match up? And in terms of that, just look for really pick one detail, one intersection, one landmark, something that has a finiteness to it, rather than trying to look for all things at once, you'll just kind of get lost in your search. So you're saying be very specific in terms of what you're going to look for to match up between the video image and the satellite imagery.

AUBREY BYRON
Yeah. The language barrier I know is a big thing for some of our listeners that we don't really talk about that much, but it's interesting for him to say that it can be helpful in a way.

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah, I think the takeaway is definitely don't let it be a barrier and sometimes it can be an advantage. There's definitely a place for language expertise, but that's not every place. Like I said, this is a very bare bones geolocating case that shows how much curiosity and open source tools play a part in it.

AUBREY BYRON
So what kind of investigations do they get into in syria?

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah. So Syria is next. I would say it might be the most graphic and violent. So this book is definitely not for the faint of heart. They get into some really disturbing things, obviously, and like I said, being able to almost ignore these elements in the course of the investigation, not necessarily in the impetus for it, can be a gift not only to the quality of research, but also to the mental state of the researcher. He talks about taking care of yourself, for one, that you can be really affected by these things. So try to compartmentalize, for lack of a better term, to improve the research itself and to kind of protect yourself in a certain way. In terms of what type of research he focuses on in Syria, I think this is where he becomes an unsuspecting weapons expert because it's all he's doing. He's just looking at the weaponry over and over and over on like so many different videos and images. And his lack of expertise is again kind of good for this investigation because he's only using open sources, he's verifying it with other information he's able to find online. And because of the nature of the conflict, traditional weapons expertise at sometimes didn't apply for the rebel groups.

SHANNON RAGAN
They were using a lot of DIY weaponry, IEDs. Things like that. They might look similar between different rebel groups, but in terms of traditional military weaponry, that just wasn't what it was. Another aspect of the Syrian investigation is a big one in terms of kind of geopolitical importance that he looks at weaponry that was coming from? It was old, like Yugoslav weaponry. It's like, why is this suddenly appearing? And they were able to find out in connection, I believe, with a New York Times investigation, that the Saudis had bought weapons from Croatia that were from the former US. Lobbyists and were smuggling them into Syria and distributing them to select rebel groups that they wanted to back. So that was fascinating. The other one, like I said, is pretty dark, is the use of indiscriminate weapons by the Assad forces. So barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and the chemical weapons attacks and how they attributed them to the Assad forces and not the rebel forces is really at the crux of that and doing it all through social media and video footage. There was one video that really kind of cracked this case wide open, and it's a video of Assad forces in a military aircraft surrounded by barrel bombs and lighting a fuse of one with a cigarette and kicking it out the back of a plane onto a town that had said we were the victim of barrel bombs.

SHANNON RAGAN
And the Assad forces denied it. Not only are you seeing it play out, the reason that they were able to verify it is because the cameraman at the end looks out over the back of the open aircraft and essentially gets an aerial view of the city that the bomb is now falling on. So things like that. It's very much a smoking gun, but would not have been there were it not for people looking at open source footage from this perspective.

AUBREY BYRON
You mentioned investigation with The New York Times. I'm curious, what is their relationship like with traditional media or traditional journalism? Do they mention that?

SHANNON RAGAN
Definitely they're there to be collaborators, that I think there are some parts where he comes off as critical of journalism for, I think historically ignoring open source information and a lot of the intelligence or investigative bodies that were around before Oson really took off like ten years or so ago. I think it is still kind of a dirty word in those those agencies and newsrooms that are used to relying kind of on their traditional means and just tend to ignore open sources. Higgins, I think, essentially says that that's a form of neglect. Now, you don't necessarily need to become an Oson expert yourself, but you need to be able to partner with these people and understand the intelligence products that they are releasing and include them, use them as corroboration for the other sources that you're relying on.

AUBREY BYRON
Were there other investigations in the book that stood out to you?

SHANNON RAGAN
Yes, I think some of the most interesting ones were not just investigating, verifying a piece of footage or whatever, but performing some means of attribution of who's responsible for this, how high up does it go, that sort of thing. So there were two ones that were really in depth. There was the one on tracking the buck Buke. I'm probably saying this wrong. I'm not a weapons expert. I've only read this word, the missile launcher that took down the Malaysian Airlines flight and saying that not only did it come down by a missile, but that it came down from this one that was in rebel held territory and that came from Russia. And Russia's military command must have known that this was going on. So that one is really painstaking tracking the launcher coming from Russia, moving into the rebel held territory, moving back out, one missile shy back into Russia, and all the logistics of who had to okay that in order for it to happen. So that one was really fascinating. Lots of image verification and video verification of open sources included in that. The other one that involves Attribution is the Screeple poisoning, the no Chuck poisoning in London.

SHANNON RAGAN
Again, an amazing case study in Attribution. So identifying who the individuals were, their military links, and then basically who in the chain of command, again, had to okay this and doing it. This was the one that was a lot of open sources, but they essentially ran into a brick wall, and they did accept closed sources into this investigation. And he talks a lot about the kind of ethical standards of doing that and why they chose to do it in this case and why they don't generally choose to do it in others. The other one hit very close to home in terms of the US. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was interesting to see. Again, kind of an ethics consideration of who they chose to investigate and identify and who they chose to ignore at this rally as well.

AUBREY BYRON
I can't tell you how many times I've mispronounced a word, because I've only encountered it in books here's. Two books.

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah, to books to only having to read.

AUBREY BYRON
How did they determine, though, in the Unite the Right rally, who was investigated and who was ignored?

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah, so they focus not on the entire rally. They focus on a specific video of an altercation, to put it lightly, of a group of white men beating a black man, I think, in a parking structure or parking lot. So they do identify them, but everyone else at the rally technically still covered under First Amendment rights. And there's this sense of not wanting to release the hounds. I know, like in the Boston bombing, there was the misidentification. They talk about this in the book of who the suspects were and what that led to. And so they're very careful in terms of what they choose to investigate and then the information that they choose to amplify and kind of release to the broader community.

AUBREY BYRON
Yeah, I remember the Boston bombing. And that actually kind of leads me to a question, is I'm curious kind of what their ethical standards are, especially both considering themselves journalists or because your identifications, especially if incorrect, can have pretty drastic effects on people.

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah. So I think the importance of establishing an organization like Bellingcat is to put some parameters and some ethics around open source, which is kind of the Wild West, for lack of a better term. Anybody can do it. Anybody can access the information. That is the beauty and the danger of it. So for Bellingcat, they choose to only investigate items that have significance in terms of political or political power or global conflict or themselves are crimes under local jurisdictions or things like war crimes. I think another ethic is transparency, that whatever they lay out, they need to make sure that anybody can go kind of follow that paper trail and come to the same conclusions that they can, and that there is a duty to preserve that paper trail. There is a thing that Higgins keeps coming back to. You can tell it really affects him personally that at a conference, he's speaking, and a Syrian activist stands up and says, people are risking their lives to collect this footage and this evidence, and pretty much nothing is being done with it in terms of prosecutions or military efforts. Why should we risk our lives to do this?

SHANNON RAGAN
And that comes back to Higgins duty to preserve so they themselves are serving as a receptacle, you know, to preserve this information lest it disappear. And that can disappear because the services that they're uploaded to who are out of service, this is the case in very popular video upload site for Syrian activists that just shut down. And all of that was lost in terms of platforms that are still up and running. They can choose to delete your content because of violations of terms of service, things like that. They're also preserving not just for future prosecutions, but also if we're still not able to prosecute. But there's this possibility of revisionist history that authoritarians decide, we're just going to pretend like this never happened, get rid of it, erase the history of it. And so he takes Archiving, I think itself as an ethical requirement to archive and to maintain chain of custody, that you don't want this evidence thrown out if it does get to a court of law because it was lawfully handled, it could have been manipulated, and it's all for, not because you didn't follow chain of custody rules.

AUBREY BYRON
Yeah. The archivist part is something I didn't realize they were doing and seems important.

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah. I think Bellycat is doing it to an extent for specific investigations, but he talks about different organizations, like, there's one for the Syrian conflict that is literally making an archive of all of this information and trying to catalog it in a way that's easily searchable for this future use.

AUBREY BYRON
So in the spirit of anybody can do this at home and or what might be relevant to our audience of professional researchers, do they talk about the tools or resources they use? And is there anything you think our audience might want to know about.

SHANNON RAGAN
Yeah, some of them are pretty obvious. I think the award for most cited tool is Google Earth. It's just amazing to think before Google Earth, a lot of this research just would not be possible. So. Thank you, Google Earth. Thank you, Google. Something we don't say often to the overlords. Another one that was more obscure and very specific but very useful to geolocation is Suncow. So this is a site or a tool that helps you understand the time of day that some piece of video or image was taken based on the shadows. So it helps in verifying the legitimacy of the context around the posting of information. Or if you're doing something chronological, like the missile launcher investigation of it's, like, okay, the missile was here at this time, it was here at this time. It was here at this time. It's here at this time. Sunkelk was something I'd never heard of before. The other one getting after chain of custody is Hunchley. I think we've recommended this on the show before. It tracks the investigators all of their clicks and views, preserves all the pages that you visit to retain that entire process and preserve it for future investigations if somebody else picks it up.

SHANNON RAGAN
So Hunchley is the other one. And then I mentioned also, if you're investigating in terms of a particular conflict, there may already be archival databases that are open source that you can access for cataloged and easily searchable information. And of course, then there is Bellingcat themselves that they offer training on all these types of OSINT tactics. They have an online investigation toolkit. Both of these are available on their site. I believe they're free for anyone to use. So go check them out. There's tons of different trainings and workshops that they do that should be very helpful.

AUBREY BYRON
So, last question, how many stars out.

SHANNON RAGAN
Of five would you oh, my goodness. I mean, for an oath book, I would give it five stars. Yeah, it's chock full of information. It is the OSINT world up, down, in and out. And because they have the investigative journalism background or his ghost writer, at least, it's really well written. Like, it's a pretty short book, but it's very dense. But to be able to tell those stories in an interesting way that you don't feel bogged down, it was a good read. So, five stars.

AUBREY BYRON
Awesome. I can't wait to pick it up. Hopefully our audience will, too. Well, you heard it here. Thanks for telling us about your OSINT read, Shannon. And if you liked what you heard, you can subscribe to our show. Wherever you get your podcast, watch episodes on YouTube and view transcripts and other episode info on our website, authenticate.com Needlestack. And that's authentic with the number eight Needlestack. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and tell us what you thought of the show at needlestackpod. And we will be back next week with another OSINT book club with me in the hot seat having to explain it to you and Chant as the host. We'll see you then.
 

This special edition of NeedleStack features a must-read for open-source researchers, "We Are Bellingcat" by Eliot Higgins. Our producer Shannon discusses what she learned from the founder of Bellingcat’s tell-all and how researchers can learn from the organization’s practices.

Key takeaways

  • How Bellingcat started
  • Major investigations in Libya, Syria and the U.S. "Unite the Right" rally
  • The ethics of OSINT

About the book

Eliot Higgins takes readers from the early days of Bellingcat and his one-man amateur investigations, to the organization’s renowned work as an investigative journalist outlet. Their researchers and writers conduct investigations around the world, including in global conflicts, domestic terrorism attacks and online disinformation. NeedleStack producer, Shannon, highlights the key takeaways and reasons why every researcher worth their salt should read this book.

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