Click on the numbered tabs to navigate this lesson.
Mastering the advanced tools in your search engine of choice, such as Reverse Image Search and search operators, can go a long way to uncovering information that will be useful to your investigations. But there are many other tools that can aid your work using “open source intelligence”, or OSINT.
These tools can help you uncover important details that are part of public records, in many different media and formats. Many specialist organisations maintain updated lists of tools. These include:
- Bellingcat’s Resources list – which includes guides on using Microsoft Flight Sim to investigate physical locations virtually and using open data flight trackers to map journeys.
- OSINT Essentials – an updated list of tools to try for different platforms.
- Global Investigative Journalism Network’s Tools & Tricks collection of guide and videos.
Perhaps the best known use of OSINT tools was the investigation by the BBC’s Africa Eye team, who proved the location of an execution in Cameroon using freely available satellite imagery and Google Maps.
Who owns that website?
Quite often, you will want to find out who is responsible for publishing a particular website. For example, if there is a portal regularly updated with fake job ads, or which publishes misinformation relating to human trafficking that look like news stories.
Domain names, such as academy.africa, have to be registered by an individual or organisation in order to be valid. Ownership records, often known as WHOIS records, are publicly available through services such as https://lookup.icann.org/ or https://who.is.
Limitations of WHOIS
There are, unfortunately, limitations to their abilities. In the record below, you can see that Code for Africa has been correctly identified as the owner of this site, but individual contact details have been redacted under personal privacy rules.
Journalists often make the mistake of believing the WHOIS record is the last word in site ownership too. In many cases, a website is registered via a third party, such as an internet service provider (ISP). You will need to carry out further checks to confirm that the registered “owner” of the website is actually the person or organisation that is using it.
Finding historical records
Civil records such as birth, death and marriage records can help with investigations, but there are challenges accessing them across Africa. In many cases, you will have to find physical copies of certificates – if they exist – from local registry offices. There are resources which collect geneaology information online, but they are not comprehensive.
Using Google Earth Pro
Google Maps is a very powerful tool for investigating locations, but Google Earth is even better. In the online version of Google Earth, you have access to satellite imagery and can quickly measure distances between two points using the ruler tool. In the downloadable desktop version, Google Earth Pro, you can see how a place has changed over time by using the clock icon in the top toolbar. This reveals a slider that can unlock satellite images from as far back as 1985.
Other tools, such as Sentinel Hub, can also be used to access historic satellite data.
Google Street View
Google Street View, too, may contain historical imagery for a site you are trying to investigate. To enter Street View, go to maps.google.com and enter a location in the search bar. In the bottom right of the screen you will see a yellow person icon. When you click and drag this icon, roads on the map turn blue.
If they do, this means they are in Google’s Street View database and you can drop the icon on them to enter a first-person view of that location. In the top left of the screen, you may see a clock icon. This will give you access to images of the same road going back some years. This way you can note any changes in the geography that may have taken place over time.