Modern problems call for modern solutions, and it seems that in this day and age, everything and anything can be found on the internet. Two current trends have been building across the nation for some time now. One is anti-law-enforcement sentiment and the other is people posting everything — and we mean everything — on social media. These two parallel trends may seem to have little, if anything, to do with one another, but we see one as a problem and the other as a solution to part of this problem.
With the negative attitudes toward law enforcement, it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain search warrants and even subpoenas in some jurisdictions. Many experienced investigators will simply place the blame with the judge or somewhere in the prosecutor’s office and move onto the next case. Well, those investigators are most likely dinosaurs, and if they do not want to go extinct, they will have to evolve with the times. After all, modern problems call for modern solutions.
Anytime there are people with their phones out, they are posting what they are seeing somewhere, and it is our job to find it.
When victims, witnesses, suspects or offenders make a public post to a social media platform, they literally made the decision to set their privacy to “public.” They have absolutely zero expectation of privacy. They themselves literally put the information out there for anyone and everyone, including you, to see. When they have made these posts “public,” anyone on the platform can see them, including you. Some of us are very adept at scouring the internet for information on persons of interest, others of us not so much. For those of us who may be slightly less well-versed in open-source investigations, we are going to talk about a few helpful links and websites.
Most public information can be found for free. If you work for an agency that utilizes programs such as Accurint through LexisNexis or CLEAR from Thomson Reuters, you are slightly ahead of the game. However, those programs cost money and not all agencies are able to spend that money. For those of us who work for agencies that have not purchased the aforementioned software or simply do not have access to that software, there are a litany of search engines that will provide much of the same information, we just have to work a little harder and take a little more time to get there.
Some of these searches can be as simple as using a Google image search. You simply type “Google image search” into your browser’s search bar and then click on the camera icon that appears on the right side of the search bar. From there, you can either type in the URL of the image you are searching or upload the image. This could prove helpful in many different types of investigations. Another helpful site for reverse image searching is TinEye Reverse Image Search (tineye.com). Instagram and Facebook have search bars as well. These tools can be especially useful when searching for social media accounts belonging to targets. Their profile picture is often a favorite photo of theirs and it is likely used across most platforms they utilize. It is not a bad idea to create a “dummy” account to use for these searches. It is not advisable to utilize your personal accounts in the course of employment, as they can and will become admissible and discoverable in any legal proceedings.
Simply using a better search engine is one of the easier ways to net better search results. Instead of using Google, Bing or whatever you have been using, try utilizing an engine such as All in One (all-io.net). Although more does not necessarily mean better, when it comes to investigations, our job is often finding that needle in the haystack. If you find that is the case, a search engine like Carrot2 (search.carrot2.org) can be helpful. This search will break down the results by category and help separate the information. It breaks the giant haystack down into smaller, categorized haystacks, making that needle easier to find.
The above tools are helpful if you know what you are looking for; however, if you find yourself in a situation where you are not exactly sure what to search for, social media could come to the rescue. For Snapchat, all you need to do is download the app, sign in and you will be able to see Snap Maps. These are posts that users have made public and pinned on a map. These snaps will appear on a map close to where they were taken, and they will include the username of the poster. Another simple method of searching for social media content geographically is the One Million Tweet Map (onemilliontweetmap.com). This map shows tweets within a selected location across the globe. The map can zoom into any geographic location you choose and can even be searched for keywords. This feature can prove to be invaluable. These tools are typically useful with large fights, shootings or anything else that occurs in the public eye that grabs people’s attention. Anytime there are people with their phones out, they are posting what they are seeing somewhere, and it is our job to find it.
The tools listed above only very lightly scratch the surface of open-source investigations. If you start using these tools, it will help you become more familiar with the concept. Once you are familiar with using public sources to gain pertinent information for your case, it will be very easy for you to perform the same types of searches to locate other open-source links. There are a multitude of instructors out there who all have their favorite sites, and they are not hard to find. Do a couple of searches for open-source intel and you will see list after list of websites and search engines. Some information out there is better than others, like everything on the internet, but you need to try these sites and methods and find a few that work best for you. These basic searches and sites are typically enough to get the job done, but there are definitely more complex sites for more complex cases.