Open-Source Intelligence: How Bellingcat Uses Data Gathered by Authoritarian Governments – Slashdot

CNN profiles Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative group specializing in “open-source intelligence”. And investigator Christo Grozev tells CNN that authoritarian governments make their work easier, because “they love to gather data, comprehensive data, on … what they consider to be their subjects, and therefore there’s a lot of centralized data.”

“And second, there’s a lot of petty corruption … within the law enforcement system, and this data market thrives on that.”Billions have been spent on creating sophisticated encrypted communications for the military in Russia. But most of that money has been stolen in corrupt kickbacks, and the result is they didn’t have that functioning system… It is shocking how incompetent they are. But it was to be expected, because it’s a reflection of 23 years of corrupt government.
Interestingly there’s apparently less corruption in China — though more whistleblowers. But Bellingcat’s first investigation involved the 2014 downing of a Boeing 777 over eastern Ukraine that killed 283 passengers. (The Dutch Safety Board later concluded it was downed by a surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine.) “At that time, a lot of public data was available on Russian soldiers, Russian spies, and so on and so forth — because they still hadn’t caught up with the times, so they kept a lot of digital traces, social media, posting selfies in front of weapons that shoot down airliners. That’s where we kind of perfected the art of reconstructing a crime based on digital breadcrumbs…”

“By 2016, it was no longer possible to find soldiers leaving status selfies on the internet because a new law had been passed in Russia, for example, banning the use of mobile phones by secret services and by soldiers. So we had to develop a new way to get data on government crime. We found our way into this gray market of data in Russia, which is comprised of many, many gigabytes of leaked databases, car registration databases, passport databases. Most of these are available for free, completely freely downloadable from torrent sites or from forums and the internet.”And for some of them, they’re more current. You actually can buy the data through a broker, so we decided that in cases when we have a strong enough hypothesis that a government has committed the crime, we should probably drop our ethical boundaries from using such data — as long as it is verifiable, as long as it is not coming from one source only but corroborated by at least two or three other sources of data. That’s how we develop it. And the first big use case for this approach was the … poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 (in the United Kingdom), when we used this combination of open source and data bought from the gray market in Russia to piece together who exactly the two poisoners were. And that worked tremendously…. 

Source: Open-Source Intelligence: How Bellingcat Uses Data Gathered by Authoritarian Governments – Slashdot