The internet, free speech and responsibility (6)

Perhaps foremost in this regard is Bellingcat, which according to its website, regards itself as “an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists using open source and social media investigation to probe a variety of subjects – from Mexican drug lords and crimes against humanity, to tracking the use of chemical weapons and conflicts worldwide.”

In his 2021 book “we are bellingcat: an intelligence agency for the people”, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins asserts his organisation was able to prove Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons against his own people.

Proof that pro-Russian militants were behind the July 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight M17in Ukrainian airspace, which killed almost 300 people en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was a major vindication of OSINT, and “helped make Bellingcat,” Higgins says.

Bellingcat also successfully located ISIS supporters embedded in Europe and the neo-Nazis troubling Charlottesville, Virginia, in America, according to Higgins. OSINT has also been effective against Covid-19 disinformation.

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Higgins prefers to describe what he does as “online open-source investigation”, as opposed to OSINT. “What we do is far more than just internet research, we battle the counterfactual forces warping society, we show ordinary citizens how to expose wrongdoing and demand accountability from the powerful (Higgins, 2021).”

Either way, individuals now have as much sway as many governments towards democratic goals of accountability, security, free speech and human rights. Thus, OSINT is increasingly proving to be a robust bulwark against the burgeoning arsenal of technologies of remote control at the behest of governments.

OSINT tools available for free on the internet include Twitter, Facebook, Google Maps, Google Earth, YouTube, and Wikimapia. For the discerning and diligent, almost all information of intelligence value can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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If a global event is significant enough, there are probably many videos about it on YouTube. More interestingly, it is the less obvious images of personal events, quirks, and self-promotion that tend to provide breakthrough insights.

It is still quite surreal that Google Maps, which according to Wikipedia, offers satellite imagery, aerial photography, street maps, 360 degree interactive panoramic views of streets, real-time traffic conditions, and route planning for travelling by foot, car, air and public transportation, is a tool available to the general public for free.

Wikimapia, an online editable map, allows users to annotate places or simply browse the map for places that have already been marked and described. According to Wikipedia, it utilizes Google Maps with a geographically-referenced wiki system to mark and describe all geographical objects in the world.

Online workspace tool Slack and digital media crowd-verification app Checkdesk are some examples of internet resources that allow all of these tools to be harnessed in a collaborative and global manner with astonishingly effective results.

To be sure, OSINT is not espionage. “Open-source investigators analyse what sits in public (Higgins, 2021).” WikiLeaks, which involved leaking classified information, was not an open-source investigation, for instance.

There have been recent good examples of successful online sleuthing in African countries. Evidence of atrocities that were uncovered using OSINT tools may not have seen the light of day otherwise. Global news organisations were able to use digital online tools to back up their stories on the 2020 Lekki shooting incident in Lagos, Nigeria, for instance. The world would almost certainly have been kept in the dark about the unbelievable harm being meted out to innocent civilians in the ongoing Tigray conflict in Ethiopia without OSINT.

Naturally, governments have become increasingly on edge about the erstwhile state capabilities of intelligence-gathering and legally-binding investigations that are now available to literally every Tom, Dick and Harry on the internet. This is good. As British newspaper The Economist recently put it in an article in early August 2021, open-source intelligence “is a welcome threat to malefactors and governments with something to hide.”

In her 2018 book “Fascism: A warning”, former American secretary of state Madeleine Albright laments how even though “the internet should be an ally of freedom and a gateway to knowledge”, “in some cases, it is neither.” Open-source online intelligence may have begun to balance the scales.

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