Interview: Eliot Higgins

The founder of the open-source intelligence outlet Bellingcat tells James Orr about Russian attacks on civilians in Ukraine and debunking conspiracy theories.

The World Today Updated 22 November 2023 Published 2 December 2022 3 minute READ

James Orr

Journalist on South Asia, the US and the Middle East, Freelance

Investigations using open-source intelligence (OSINT) are a distinct contrast to your previous life working in banking and the charitable sector. What prompted the change in direction?

It was really driven by my own interest in having a deeper understanding of the unfolding Arab Spring conflicts. I was very much part of online forums culture, spending a lot of time posting and arguing about events in places like Libya, and time and again you would have someone share a video that supposedly showed this or that, and that would trigger an argument about the validity of the video. 

I realized you could use satellite imagery on Google Maps to confirm where a video was captured

Often the question was about proving where something was filmed, and I realized you could use satellite imagery on places like Google Maps to find the locations and confirm where a video was captured. That is now a core process of investigating open-source content, which we call geolocation, but back then no one was really doing that. It set me on the journey that led to where I am today.

Given the proliferation of OSINT analysts since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how can you distinguish the good from poor-quality analysis or deliberate misinformation?

Simply, it is a question of whether the information available in the piece of evidence supports the claim being made. We also need to look at what open-source investigation actually is, as there has been a lot of argument online about people who stick ‘OSINT analyst’ in their Twitter profile because they are finding videos on Telegram and reposting them on Twitter without any real analysis. 

It is handy to have people finding that material and sharing it, and I consider them as much part of the community as those people who do the deep dives and in-depth analysis, but it is not analysis in and of itself. Fortunately, the same community is also good at identifying examples of bad analysis or shady claims, so that stuff gets called out quickly.

Bellingcat has been very active in examining Russian attacks on civilians in Ukraine. What is the scale and nature of these attacks?

It is hard to contextualize it as there have been such widespread violations and it is hard to put a figure on the size and scope of incidents. We have seen widespread indiscriminate attacks on civilians, attacks on civilian infrastructure, reports of systematic torture, sexual violence and executions. We have seen examples of forced population movements, children being sent to Russia to be adopted by Russian parents, even in cases where their parents aren’t dead.

Our funders have no involvement in our editorial or publishing processes – they are fully independent 

How we hold Russia to account for this is trickier. We can certainly demonstrate who is responsible for these acts, but the likelihood of perpetrators standing trial is low. 

We also have to consider the will of western states to commit to sanctions against the Russian government when there are still questions of legal accountability outstanding around the conflict. The best we can do is ensure these incidents are well documented, and that evidence is available to those who are seeking accountability.

Bellingcat has been accused of being a front for state intelligence services. Is it hard to maintain your independence?

It is pretty easy to maintain independence if you don’t go chasing after money from whoever will give it to you. Unless you are already rich, it is hard to grow an NGO from nothing without using external funders, but over the years we have developed policies to ensure we are as transparent and as independent as we can be, in both a financial and editorial sense. 

We are fortunate to be able to generate a good portion of our income from workshops we offer to the public, along with those we run for a variety of media outlets, NGOs and other organizations. We make some income from crowdfunding, and we have a range of institutional funders, so we aren’t reliant on individual funders. 

We also make it clear to funders that they have no involvement in anything to do with our editorial or publishing processes, and we have internal editorial systems to ensure that process is fully independent and based on standards agreed with the whole organization. 

The whole organization is also involved in our strategy and planning process. So, that represents input from everyone, and everyone understands why we come to the decisions we make. What Bellingcat is and what it does comes from the individuals who make up the organization, not outside influence.

Russia has a problem with us, so we take extra precautions with our physical security 

How do you keep your associates, sources and yourself safe? 

We have been targeted by multiple cyberattacks by state actors, as well as disinformation campaigns, and have developed processes to handle those threats. Russia clearly has a problem with us, with senior government and intelligence officials mentioning Bellingcat in unfavourable terms, most recently accusing us of being a proxy for western intelligence services, if not directly controlled by them.

We do have to take extra precautions with our physical security. Given we know exactly what they do with troublemakers, we have become a lot more aware of our security when travelling.

What role does OSINT and organizations such as Bellingcat play in global security in a post-truth world?

We are currently focused on justice and accountability, and countering disinformation, on building methodologies for investigating and archiving open-source evidence related to conflict incidents so both the evidence and analysis can be used in legal processes. 

We have spent the past few years developing this process with the Global Legal Action Network and have already applied the process to investigating Saudi air-strikes against civilian infrastructure in Yemen. We are now using that same process in Ukraine, and our long-term goal is to teach that process to other organizations collecting open-source evidence for legal accountability purposes.

Our disinformation work is focused on addressing its root causes, examining what draws people to conspiracy theories and how we can prevent that. In the past a lot of disinformation efforts have been focused on responding to disinformation and analysing the networks that spread it, but that is really dealing with the symptoms rather than the root cause.

What is the future of OSINT? How can it be misused and how can we ensure it doesn’t become corrupted or manipulated in the wrong hands?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated there is a big interest in the use of open-source evidence for accountability. Through our work we are aiming to build on that, developing the processes needed to investigate incidents using open-source material to meet the requirements of legal processes. 

Bad actors misusing open-source intelligence quickly get called out by the wider community

We are already seeing widespread use of open-source investigation by media organizations and human rights NGOs, so I expect that will continue to spread. No doubt we will see growing online communities engaged with open-source investigation, much like we have seen with Ukraine.

As for the risks, there have certainly been attempts by bad actors to produce open-source analysis to support their claims. The problem they face is that good open-source analysis means using transparent sources and detailing the process of analysis, so if they aren’t telling the truth or selectively ignoring evidence it becomes apparent very quickly. 

This is especially true when there is a community that is engaged with open-source investigation and can quickly pick apart any attempts to present dodgy analysis and evidence.