Digital tech rushes forward / Analysis of info exposes govt corruption

REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins poses for a portrait after giving a press conference opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, October 9, 2018.

As authoritarian states tighten their grip on their citizens through digital technology, the reporting methods of investigative organizations that use the internet to uncover government conspiracies and corruption have gained attention. Governments have suffered blows when such organizations have obtained state secrets from the online black market. Will so-called digital detectives be able to prevent authoritarian states from getting out of control?

Poisoning plot

A recording of an operative of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), who was allegedly involved in the attempted poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was released online in December 2020. In the recording, the operative said he was instructed to clean the inside of Navalny’s underwear. The operative revealed that he had washed the area on which poison had been applied to destroy the evidence. Navalny, 44, had lost consciousness on a flight to Moscow about four months earlier.

The recording was made public by the private investigative organization Bellingcat. The operative’s account was obtained in a phone call with Navalny, who impersonated an aide to the secretary of the Russian Security Council. For about 50 minutes, the operative spoke about the poisoning plot and his role in the mission among other matters. He also said he had started following Navalny three years ago.

Bellingcat used information available online to identify the operative.

First, Bellingcat formulated hypotheses, such as the perpetrator would have taken the same flights to and from Moscow as Navalny. Then, after obtaining passenger lists for several flights, one passenger was singled out. This person had also bought tickets for two other people. The name of one of the two people was real. Bellingcat found the mobile phone number of the person on a social media platform. It also found that a different person had registered the mobile phone number on the same platform and stated that the man belonged to the FSB. This became the breakthrough that led to the identification of the alleged perpetrators.

Open sources

Bellingcat’s weapon is information from the online black market. A list of traders selling personal information appears when the Russian expression for “punching a hole” is input as a search query on a free communication app. These traders collect and sell personal information such as passport and bank account records. One major seller charges 20,000 rubles (about ¥29,000) for a file containing various kinds of information on an individual.

Such information has been stolen by government or corporate informants. It is unclear whether the motivation is money or discontent with governments, but the leaks are thought to reflect strains in authoritarian rule.

In December 2020, IStories, an investigative outlet comprising Russian journalists, revealed the alleged massive wealth of a man described as the former husband of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s daughter. This revelation was the result of analyzing emails leaked on the internet. Roman Shleynov, who participated in the investigation, said that closed systems are corrupt, so anything could be bought under the current Russian regime.

Monitoring oppression

Bellingcat was founded by former blogger Eliot Higgins from Britain. Higgins, 42, has stressed that revealing the inside story of the attempted poisoning has been effective in preventing intelligence agencies from carrying out new operations.

He analyzed the situation on the field in Libya’s civil war, which started in 2011, from images of weapons and buildings that local residents had taken and posted online. His findings posted on his blog attracted the attention of human rights groups and other entities.

Bellingcat is currently registered as a Dutch foundation. With its Arabic-speaking staff, it also monitors oppressive regimes in the Middle East. Bellingcat has held online training sessions about investigative methods for media organizations in Latin America. It intends to expand the scope of such training programs to include nongovernmental organizations in Africa and China. Higgins said the methods by which open sources are gathered and then verified to uncover facts can be applied anywhere in the world.

Some people have raised questions about whether information obtained through illegal methods should be used. Higgins has said Bellingcat has always discussed ethical issues internally.

According to Bellingcat, its staff members and collaborators are active in more than 20 countries. It has 18 staff members. About 35% of their expenses, including the cost to buy black market information, are covered by the income earned from training sessions organized by Bellingcat. The organization also collects donations.