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Opinion | How Online Sleuths Pantsed Putin

archived recording

(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” [MUSIC PLAYING] My guest today is Eliot Higgins. He created Bellingcat, the open source investigative team that’s part online detective agency and part news outlet. Higgins’s group has broken some of the biggest stories in recent years. Bellingcat found evidence linking Russia to the downing of flight MH17, identified alt-right protesters in Charlottesville, and unveiled the alleged poisoners who targeted Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Bellingcat has become a major thorn in the side of powerful and dangerous people like Vladimir Putin. I wanted to understand how Higgins decides what’s worth investigating and what distinguishes his organization from online vigilantes. But first, I asked him how he came up with the name Bellingcat in the first place.

eliot higgins

So Bellingcat is based off the fable of “Belling the Cat,” where there’s a group of mice who are very frightened of a large, ferocious cat. So they decide that they need a plan to deal with that. And they come up with the idea of putting a bell around the cat’s neck. But then they realize they don’t actually know how to do that because it was a huge cat, and they’re mice. So we’re, in a way, teaching people how to bell the cat.

kara swisher

So that they can hear the cat coming.

eliot higgins

So you can hear it coming and be kind of warned of it.

kara swisher

So you are the mice, presumably, in this scenario.

eliot higgins

Yeah, people always call us the Bellingcats, and no, we’re the mice, so. [CHUCKLES]

kara swisher

All right. Well, anyway, but you are the mice in this idea, is that are facing some ferocious people that could eat you, essentially, and that you are going to make sure people can hear them coming or hear them when what they’re doing in a stealthy way, for example.

eliot higgins

Yeah, and that takes all kinds of different forms. I mean, the work of Bellingcat covers a pretty wide range of topics. I mean, a lot of it does end up focusing on Russia. But that’s because Russia’s up to quite a lot of pretty bad stuff at the moment. But we write on a whole range of different topics. And recently, we’ve been writing a lot about the kind of origins of Q and clues to who his identity might be. We’ve written about the kind of violence of January 6 in Washington, DC. We’ve looked into kind of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, just a whole range of different topics, looking at how open source material can be used to investigate those topics.

kara swisher

I want you to explain what open source means.

eliot higgins

So open source information is anything that is basically publicly available information, information that you can either kind of go out and find, or you can buy — for example, satellite map imagery. What changed over the last 10 years or so is how much of that information is available and who it is available to because of, really, the rise of smartphone technology from 2007 onwards and around that, the development of social media sharing apps. People are sharing information all the time. Alongside that, you have the development of things like Google Earth making satellite imagery accessible to everyone, Google Street View, so you have a view from the ground of near anywhere in the world, virtually. And by combining those two kind of almost revolutions in technology, that allows us to do this kind of new form of online open source investigation, where anyone with a laptop and internet connection can look at videos and images and information coming from a range of different instance and countries and start actually piecing together and verifying what this is actually showing.

kara swisher

I want to know how you got started in doing this kind of digital forensics.

eliot higgins

For me, actually, it really started off in 2010 with the events of the Arab Spring. Back then, I was just working in kind of finance and admin jobs, nothing really kind of grand. But I had an interest in what was happening in the Arab Spring. And I was someone who also spent an awful lot of time on the internet. So I was part of these kind of online debates and discussions. So over about a period of a year, I did that more and more and started to build up a following, particularly among people who were interested in the conflict in Syria, be they journalists, people at think tanks, even people in the kind of political classes and various experts. Because no one else was really bothering to look at these videos in a kind of any sort of analytical way. And then, in 2013, I actually, using these videos, discovered the Saudi secret smuggling operation to the Syrian rebels. Because they were getting all these new weapons from the former Yugoslavia. I figured out where they were coming from. And actually working with “The New York Times,” we were able to establish that this was part of a secret smuggling operation.

kara swisher

So what you were doing was basically gumshoe journalism using online tools. I mean, most journalists would go in and see them or take pictures of them. I assume, in this case you’re being provided photos because everybody is taking and uploading photos all around the world, essentially.

eliot higgins

Yeah, I mean, it’s basically just looking at the evidence and figuring out what it said. One advantage I had, funnily enough, was because I didn’t speak a word of Arabic, I could only see what was being shown. So someone would say something in a video, and they were telling a whole story. It didn’t matter to me. But I could see that that object on the ground was a cluster munition or a very particular kind of barrel bomb design.

kara swisher

And you’re doing all of this online from England.

eliot higgins

Yeah, I mean, I just sat on my sofa every night, kind of looking through the latest videos.

kara swisher

So how much of Bellingcat’s open source forensics are based on social media like this?

eliot higgins

Yeah, I mean, it is really any public information that we can find. It’s people posting on internet forums or YouTube or weird social media sites you never really hear about because they’re for some really minor obscure groups. So for example, when we were doing our work on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, we were looking into the soldiers who were connected to the Russian military brigade that sent the missile launcher over the border. And we looked into them using the VKontakte profile of the 53rd Air Defense Brigade, which they belonged to. So that’s Russia’s equivalent of Facebook. Then we looked at all the people who were following them. And a lot of them were the soldiers serving in that brigade. And then, we looked at their user IDs and searched for those user IDs on different social media platforms, which then revealed more and more information about them, what they were doing, who their friends were. And we used that basically to map out the entire network of the 53rd Air Defense Brigade, so every member, photograph, rank. We also used an internet forum for the wives, girlfriends, and mothers of the soldiers, where they were discussing their concerns about their sons and husbands or boyfriends, giving details of their military operations because they all kind of felt like it was this secure place, where it was a public forum. So it’s anywhere where there’s information being shared online. And obviously, that’s a lot of different places.

kara swisher

Right, the Russian government has cracked down on soldiers’ selfies and things like that because essentially, they were saying where they were, what they were doing. And so, you could make links between them, which is a banquet for intelligence services and you yourself.

eliot higgins

Yeah.

kara swisher

So your investigations really build on platforms that do a terrible job with privacy — Facebook, for example, or YouTube. And are you troubled by the idea that your success depends on their surveillance and their terrible privacy?

eliot higgins

It’s almost a paradox of the kind of work we do. Because a really good example of this is Facebook Graph Search, which was a search tool being introduced several years ago, that allows you to do very complicated searches on any individuals or groups of individuals. You could find out people who work in Washington, DC, who go to the nearest Starbucks to the White House, really granular searches, which is fantastic if you’re investigating people because you could find out all sorts of things and getting connections. It’s also fantastic if you’re Cambridge Analytica and you wanted to swing the vote.

kara swisher

That’s right.

eliot higgins

Or if you were Russia and you wanted to swing the 2016 election. So that got shut down. So we lost a really good investigation tool. But it also meant that society also lost something that was beginning to become quite toxic to it. And you have all these kind of paradoxes. We want people to be safe and secure online, but we also want people to be sharing as much information as possible about certain specific things.

kara swisher

Yeah, you kind of benefit from the shitty privacy settings that these companies have or — and people’s demented need to share at this point. Because people are carrying surveillance devices every day of their lives.

eliot higgins

We see every single day of our work how often people overexpose them. It’s like when we’re looking into cases of corruption, the easiest way to look into a corrupt individual is look at their children and their wife’s social media accounts because they will have all their sports cars and their holidays all over that while, obviously, the person might be quite humble in their kind of own social media posts. So —

kara swisher

This is why I’ve switched off all location and access to Facebook, for example.

eliot higgins

This is the thing. And so people have got a way to share really useful information about incidents that we’re interested in. And we want people to kind of pull out our phone and film an air strike or the remains of a bomb or someone committing a crime. But we don’t want them kind of overexposing their lives. It’s like the My Activity thing on Google, where you can simply go there, and they’ve got a map of every single place you’ve been to.

kara swisher

So you also helped ID violent extremists at the 2017 Charlottesville rally. On January 6, there was a riot at the Capitol. So walk me through it step by step how your investigators sprang into action on January 6. When did you first learn about the attack?

eliot higgins

I mean, really, I was kind of on Twitter and then watching it kind of escalate because you had Donald Trump’s speech. And so, we were kind of just generally watching it as kind of consumers of news. And then when we realized what was happening, that’s kind of when we sort of got into action collecting these videos.

kara swisher

What did you call first? I want actual details. So what did you do first? You’re like, I bet these people are going to record. We’re doing crimes. Look at us.

eliot higgins

Yeah, I mean, we were discussing it in the buildup to it, should we do what we did with Charlottesville? And we were thinking surely they wouldn’t be stupid enough to kind of record what they’re doing again, but we were wrong. So with Charlottesville, we collected as many videos as possible. So we did the same thing with January 6. We put our big kind of call for material. But the real difference there was the massive amount of material there was from January 6 compared to 2017 because everyone had a phone there. Everyone was streaming. So then when that was happening, we already had a Google sheet and a Google form set up for people to fill in. And on Twitter, we just said if you have a video, could you pull it into this sheet? And then we’d go through it. So we have these 1,000 videos or so. And then we kind of de-duplicated them or figured out which ones had clips in them. And that was literally watching every video, just recognizing I’ve seen that video 200 cells beforehand, and then sorting them by kind of location. So we had the inaugural entrance was one location. I spent several weeks looking at all the videos of that to put them into sequential order and also figure out their physical position. So we had kind of then 1,000 videos from all over the area. But we knew when they were filmed and where they were filmed. And that was weeks of work to do that.

kara swisher

But what do you do? Law enforcement is also working on trying to identify rioters, continuing to do. Do you partner with them, our intelligence services?

eliot higgins

No, we are actually approached by the FBI on this one, saying if we could kind of give them any assistance, but we don’t want to do the job of law enforcement for them, especially when they’re so well resourced. I mean, we’re a small organization. We have a budget of about $1.7 million a year, which is something we had to build up to. But we didn’t want to do those and end up in a situation where we’re saying, oh, we’ve got to figure out who that guy or that guy is because we know from experience, even if you get some people right, plenty of people get misidentified. And that’s exactly what happened. The kind of internet community formed to hunt down the people responsible. And they identified a bunch of wrong people who ended up getting harassed online. And we’ve seen that going back years, the Boston Marathon Reddit investigation being a good example of that, where they identify two suspects because of this kind of groupthink that occurred by having hundreds of people involved. And in my experience, the more complicated the investigation, the less people you want involved, because that’s when you start having a ton of groupthink emerge.

kara swisher

Right, so one of the things that I think was important that you mentioned just now was this idea of people misidentifying people. There are a lot of online vigilantes, so we saw after the Capitol attack many citizens in online forums comb through social media, trying to identify rioters. There’s a thing called due process. There’s a thing called presuming innocent before guilt. How do you think about that?

eliot higgins

Well, in the specific case of January 6, we knew from past experience that we didn’t want loads of people looking into the identities of these people because we knew that would just be a disaster. So we said on our social media account that we aren’t looking for people. It was the FBI’s job to do that. We knew that wouldn’t stop people from doing it, but we tried to discourage it wherever we could. But when we’re doing our own work, when we do identify people, we’re looking at details that aren’t just, oh, that guy has a similar face. When we’re looking at the Charlottesville kind of individuals we were looking into, one guy had a very distinct pattern of moles on his neck. And that’s kind of the key thing that allowed us to be 100% sure we were looking at the right person. So that’s also quite distinct when we’re looking, for example, for these Russian spies, looking at their fake passports and their real identity documents. Not only do you have the shape of their face, but their ear shape is actually quite distinct as well. So you can use that almost as a fingerprint, if you look at their ear shapes kind of very carefully in passport photographs. We also now work with universities who have expertise in facial recognition.

kara swisher

Which can be wrong. One of the things that I think you probably are aware of — most journalists, even though they sort of get pilloried, are in fear of getting things wrong and hurting people. I think it’s drilled into you at a very early age, as a journalist. And especially with online, people make all these leaps.

eliot higgins

In a sense, for me, it was always informed by the origins of my own career path, which is basically arguing with people on the internet and knowing that people on the internet, A, will argue over any point to a ridiculous length.

kara swisher

They indeed will.

eliot higgins

And if you get something wrong, they will never let you forget it. So those are the two things that inform our work. Plus, now, we also have Russia basically doing the same thing, because if we get something wrong, Russia won’t let us forget it, either. So that, I think, informs all our work. Plus, the way we actually work is, we’re often — it’s quite collaborative. For example, with the Russia stuff we’re doing at the moment, there’s four or five of us in a group who are discussing this stuff quite regularly, examining each other’s works, questioning each other. And then that goes to the editorial team, who then go through it and then ask more and more questions on top of that.

kara swisher

All right. Last summer, Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was hospitalized in Siberia after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. He was then treated in Germany. You launched a major investigation into who was behind this. How did you start working with Navalny?

eliot higgins

Well, funnily enough, it was really a part of an ongoing investigation we’ve been doing since 2018 with the poisoning of —

kara swisher

Around poisonings.

eliot higgins

Yes, because in 2018, we started looking into the identities of the two people connected to the Sergei Skripal poisoning in Salisbury in the UK. Using Russian bureaucratic sources, we were able to find their real identities and show they were two GRU officers. That then led us to the identity of a third GRU officer who was involved with that case and that they were part of this Unit 29155.

kara swisher

The GRU — that’s Russia’s military intelligence service. Go ahead.

eliot higgins

Yeah, and then that led, then, to an investigation in Bulgaria where that same unit was involved with another poisoning. That investigation led us to phone records, which connected them to basically a series of research laboratories in Russia where there were chemists working there who had been working on the Novichok program.

kara swisher

Right. So this is a daisy chain of poisoners. And so if they did it in one place, it stands to reason they might try it in another, or they might use the same people.

eliot higgins

And with the same source for the poisoning. So when Navalny was poisoned, we got the phone records of the scientists who work at these places. And they were actually calling up FSB teams and being called by these FSB officers. So we had to identify who these numbers were. They were FSB officers. We got their travel records. And it just happened they —

kara swisher

How did you get those? By the way, FSB is Federal Security Service for Russia. How did you get those records?

eliot higgins

You could literally go to some Russian internet forum where some guy is sending them for 1,000 rubles for anywhere you want in the — if you’ve got the passport number.

kara swisher

So these are things, presumably, our government keeps under wraps.

eliot higgins

Yeah. So we got phone records, for example. Now, phone records aren’t just the phone numbers they’ve called, but the cell-phone tower they connected to, which means you can track their movements. We were also able, then, to get — along with the flight records, we got their real identity documents and their fake identity documents, because we realized there was a process they used when they created a fake identity, which allowed us to identify their real identity. They would use the same first name, a date of birth that was exactly one year different, and usually the maiden name of their wife or girlfriend.

kara swisher

And their password —

eliot higgins

And —

kara swisher

— was 1234.

eliot higgins

Well, honestly, we have done some investigations where we have found the passwords. And it’s always really stupid passwords they use, like GRU1 and stuff like that. We found some —

kara swisher

Wow.

eliot higgins

— when we found their social-media accounts where they literally called themselves something like the Terminator or some —

kara swisher

Oh my god.

eliot higgins

— assassination-related, and they’re utterly ridiculous. But we pieced this together. And then we went to Navalny’s team and started talking to him and his team about what had happened. He was really surprised because he thought he would find out in, like, 40 years time that the FSB poisoned him, not literally, the people were at his hotel the night he was poisoned.

kara swisher

Not these chuckleheads.

eliot higgins

And then we basically worked with him. He wanted to make sure everything we were using was also not coming from, like, MI5 or the CIA. So he wanted to know every single source we were using. So he went through, I think, about a month-long process of him and his team double-checking all our findings. We got CNN involved as well, who also double-checked all our findings and sources as well. And then we published. And on the day of publication, we decided it would be fun if we phoned up these poisoners, because we had their phone numbers. So Navalny calls them up, like say hi, I’m Navalny. Why did you poison me?

kara swisher

This is in a 33-minute YouTube video with over 28 million views.

eliot higgins

Yeah, that was a — we built up to that. So what we did is used a phone-number-spoofing app, which allowed us to pretend to be calling from the FSB head office, called one of the FSB officers, saw his call where ID had the FSB head office, and then Navalny pretended to be an assistant of one of the most senior FSB officers way, way above this guy—

archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

eliot higgins

— and demanded a full report on what happened. And if we hadn’t have caught it on camera, no one would have believed us. And Navalny basically bullied him into doing it as well, because the guy was like, oh, are you sure we should be doing this on an unsecured line? And he said, no, this is really urgent. It has to be done now. You must tell me. And then he asked him to give performance reviews for each of the people involved. The thing is, because we had all this information about the case, we could give him names.

archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

eliot higgins

And he would basically say, oh, yeah. He did this. He did this. And that was confirming every single part of our investigation. Now, we didn’t publish that on the day, because we knew Putin would be giving his big yearly press conference. And he would be asked about this. And we wanted to see his response before we published the audio of this conversation. So he gets his press conference. He’s asked about Navalny. And he basically says —

archived recording (vladimir putin)

[CHUCKLES] [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

eliot higgins

— if we were going to kill him, we would have done it properly. Then, on the following Monday, we published this video of this guy saying, oh, I don’t know where it went wrong. Or, it’s probably because they got him off the plane — explaining exactly where they put the poison on his underpants, all these different details. And that made it a really, really big story in Russia and internationally as well.

kara swisher

So essentially, you pantsed Putin.

eliot higgins

Yeah. We knew he would be giving this talk. This was a strategic choice when we were publishing, because we knew if he had something on record about it, and we still had this thing in the tank, it would —

kara swisher

Yeah.

eliot higgins

Yeah, it would be more entertaining for the readers.

kara swisher

Well, this is dangerous work. Going after Putin has put you on the Kremlin’s radar. They have no problem killing people. They’ve referenced Bellingcat’s work before. You have a family. How worried are you about retaliation yourself?

eliot higgins

I’m certainly a lot more careful. In a sense, coronavirus has been almost a blessing because I haven’t had to go on foreign trips where stuff could happen. I haven’t been staying at hotel rooms with balconies. But you have to have that level of paranoia. There was one time I was staying at a hotel in the Netherlands where — I’d stayed there several times before previous years. And there was a knock on the door one evening I was there. And a door opened, and there was a guy in a suit with a name badge for the hotel saying, oh, Mr. Higgins, thank you for staying here so many times. We’d like to give you this gift. I was like, oh, OK. This is a bit weird. But when I closed the door, I thought, that guy could have been literally anyone with a name badge he picked up from reception.

kara swisher

Right.

eliot higgins

And I can’t eat these cookies they’ve given me, even though there’s a lot of them. They look delicious. So I ended up throwing them in the bin. And it was quite gutting when I came down the next morning and checked out, and they said, oh, we hope you enjoyed the cookies that we gave you yesterday.

kara swisher

You suddenly become Jason Bourne in this situation. Like, I’m not going in there.

eliot higgins

It’s the crappy parts of being Jason Bourne. It’s the kind of, you know —

kara swisher

Yeah.

eliot higgins

— having to be a bit more careful.

kara swisher

What about your family? Do you think about that?

eliot higgins

Yeah, again, my wife — she is concerned about my safety and that kind of stuff. And my kids are quite young, so they don’t quite understand what I’m doing. They’re six and nine. So maybe as they grow older and get a bit more context to what I’m doing, they might start worrying a bit more. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on Sway episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with the CIA’s chief technologist, Dawn Meyerriecks, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Eliot Higgins after the break.

So let me ask you about the ethics, because “The New York Times” doesn’t partner with Navalny in that way. Do you see a problem in partnering? Because you’re doing journalism in a different way. Why didn’t you do the investigation on your own, or at least have an arm’s-length relationship with Navalny?

eliot higgins

Well, we do a lot of collaborative work at Bellingcat, anyway. It’s not usually with the targets of poisonings. But it’s just our natural way. If we are working on a topic, we’ll find another media organization who is working on the same topic in a more local sense. And we’ve done that on a whole range of topics. It’s just, in the case of Navalny, he was the victim of a poisoning attack. And he was also this big media figure in Russia. So he’s really the ideal person to approach with this. Plus, it meant, by working with him, we could get more details of his travel records and other information that we didn’t have, which is unusual.

kara swisher

Well, most journalism organizations would want to do that, maybe, but don’t do that, right?

eliot higgins

I think, as well, because Bellingcat is this weird hybrid of an organization as well, in a way, the journalism is one outcome of the investigations that we’re doing. I think, primarily, we’re investigators. And then what we do with those investigations can be a whole range of different products.

kara swisher

That become journalism.

eliot higgins

Yeah. We break down our process to three steps — identify, verify, and amplify. So we identify material, verify it, and then we amplify it. But that amplification stage can be a more traditional journalistic output, or it could be a document for a justice and accountability process. It could be a YouTube video, a documentary. It could be all of them because it’s all using the same verified information.

kara swisher

So journalism is just a byproduct of the investigation. It could be a byproduct. So Russia’s state-run uh, Russia Today, did come after you. They homed in on one line item for 1,800 pounds paid to Bellingcat from the UK Foreign office in December of 2018. It was for, quote, “consulting management and public relations.” Can you explain what that was about?

eliot higgins

Yeah. So basically, we run workshops that are publicly available. Anyone can join them. Someone did a Freedom of Information request and found those in kind of one of these kind of things. And basically, they would say, a journalist from Eastern Europe who went to one of our courses and then had their course fee paid by the Foreign Commonwealth Office, which was 1,800 pounds, which was the same as the other 20 participants paid — so that’s pretty much the entire story. But of course, Russia Today has been desperately looking for proof that we’re secretly working for MI6. And this was all the proof they needed. There’s this “six degrees of CIA station” they like to play. If they can find one connection, then the rest just come naturally. The thing is, it’s evolved over time. And early on, it was really more the Russian media who were like — Russia Today and Sputnik — who were either saying I’m some amateur and no one should listen to me or that I’m probably connected to the intelligence services. And that intelligence-service angle certainly ramped up after the Skripal thing.

kara swisher

Sure. So let me ask, are you connected to the intelligence services?

eliot higgins

No, we’re not. And many, many people seem to think that. And one fun thing about the internet is, the people who think that all find each other and then constantly tell each other, yeah, we’re working with the CIA, and make all these connections. But it’s like, when you’ve got Russia saying that — and the Russian ambassador to the UK gave a press conference following the Skripal poisoning where he repeatedly said that Bellingcat was working for the British Deep Establishment, as he called it, and was paid for by the intelligence services. But when the journalists asked him for evidence, he said, oh, well, we have a feeling. I can’t show you the evidence. And this is the thing. If Russia cannot show evidence that Bellingcat is working for the CIA, then what hope does a bunch of conspiracy theorists on the internet have? Because Russia has the resources behind it.

kara swisher

But has the CIA or any other intelligence service, like MI6, ever offered you leads and information? Or, you say you don’t do sources. But would you accept help from those sources?

eliot higgins

No. I suspect they’re a little bit worried about exactly what we would do with that. If the CIA came to me, I would probably tweet, oh, the CIA has just been in touch, because I’m not the kind of person who is great at keeping secrets. It seems like spy work. But it’s all publicly-available information we’re using. It’s not often really big secrets.

kara swisher

Right. So you wouldn’t want to accept their information.

eliot higgins

Yeah. And the thing is, it would be, again, not open source if they did that. If they came to us with a list of YouTube videos, that would just be more weird than anything. So if they came to us with a bunch of secret videos saying, you can’t tell anyone where you got this from, then that would be a completely absurd situation for us to be into. And we wouldn’t accept any information from any kind of intelligence service anyway.

kara swisher

OK. So I want to talk about Bellingcat’s methods because you do things like paying for data sets, like you talked about, which is “probiv,” as they call it in Russia. You’re buying black-market data, essentially.

eliot higgins

Mm. It’s basically, Russia is this huge, corrupt bureaucracy. So you can buy any data you want, from phone records to passport application forms of anyone you want. So we’ve been using that data, which obviously isn’t open source in a traditional sense, even though it’s very available to anyone. But there, we would use multiple other sources to cross-reference every single piece of information to make sure it’s correct and it hasn’t been altered. And it’s like, OK, there is one assassination here. There’s one here. Oh, here’s the secret weapons lab. And it was all coming from this data. So considering the value and the importance of this, we thought it was justified, ethically, because if we didn’t do it, then there was a good chance that these guys would still be doing what they were doing today — murdering more people.

kara swisher

OK. So you weigh that in a way a journalist organization wouldn’t pay for it. Now, would you pay for controversial facial-recognition software like Clearview AI? Have you considered that?

eliot higgins

The thing is, it’s difficult. Having facial-recognition reverse-image search is something that we’ve used elsewhere in other investigations. Like, in Russia, there are sites that basically scrapes the entire social media site VKontakte and used facial recognition. So if you plug in a picture that you’ve taken or found online, it will find a matching face in that entire data set. And that will include Russian soldiers, Russian spies — really useful information. So I can see the value of that. But we wouldn’t be going, OK, we’ve got this facial-recognition match. That’s the job done. Let’s go and arrest that guy, as often happens with some of the people using these platforms, especially US police. It’s tricky, as well, because Clearview clearly is scraping a huge amount of information that I suspect it doesn’t necessarily have the right to be scraping.

kara swisher

Are you using Clearview?

eliot higgins

No, we’re not. No. I think, as well, because of our position, we scare off some organizations like Clearview, who might have a slight degree of shadiness around the way they collect data, because they don’t want to be an article on Bellingcat.

kara swisher

Right. OK. So talking about information-selling, TMZ pays for information. I know Harvey very well. The National Enquirer pays for tips. Rupert Murdoch pays for it. Should, in the future, American news outlets think about paying for data? Is that the way journalism is going? Bought and paid for, in a way?

eliot higgins

The thing with Russia is, it is extremely unique in the way that you can buy this kind of data. It’s not like you can do this in any other country in the world that we’ve looked into or done investigations in. So it is very unique. It’s also very unique of the severity of the case that we’re looking into — nerve-agent assassination programs targeting, obviously.

kara swisher

You didn’t pay to hack into her phone.

eliot higgins

Yeah, we aren’t paying people to hack into stuff or anything like that. And one thing we did when we published the Navalny case — we knew straightaway that Russia would say, oh, this is MI6 or the CIA giving me information. So we did a very long piece explaining where this information came from, what those kind of sources were, without linking directly to the sources. But that meant media organizations inside Russia, as this story was being attacked by the Russian government, actually went and bought the same data and said, oh, actually, this is exactly what Bellingcat says it is. And that actually undermined the attempts to attack Bellingcat for doing this investigation. So even though it’s not open source in the traditional sense, it is so freely available that, even with a little bit of understanding of it—

kara swisher

You don’t need that.

eliot higgins

—you can go and do it yourself. Yeah. And this is why I think, when we’re having this conversation about the ethics of using this kind of data, it’s very difficult to put it in the context of other countries, because you don’t have that — you wouldn’t be able to do that in the US.

kara swisher

But you certainly can buy information.

eliot higgins

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But it’s also, what are you buying it for? If you’re buying it for some celebrity gossip, then I don’t think there’s any justification for that, in my mind.

kara swisher

Yeah. So Fusion GPS is another entity that does — that says they do open-source investigations. Fusion is famous for commissioning the infamous Steele dossier on President Trump. That work was thought to be funded by an unknown Republican client during the Republican primary. Fusion was founded by a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Glenn Simpson, who left journalism to make money — as he put it, “We don’t use the word ‘sold out.’ We use the word ‘cashed in.’” Explain how Bellingcat is different.

eliot higgins

Well, Bellingcat now, as it is, is actually a charitable foundation in the Netherlands. So we aren’t a private company that’s trying to do this work for profit. We’re funded through donors — small donors and larger organizations. We’re funded from running workshops. So for us, it’s not about making a profit to make ourselves rich and happy, and we don’t really care about what’s happening. We’re doing this because we want to grow and develop the field of online open-source investigation and look at where it can be applied in a whole range of different fields. That’s why, at the moment, we’re doing a lot of focus, for example, on justice and accountability and developing online open-source-investigation methodologies and processes that we can use in these justice and accountability-focused investigations, knowing that they meet a standard that they can be used in a courtroom.

kara swisher

I get that. But I think the question — and I think it’s a fair one to ask — is, who are you actually accountable to? Now, I know you’re a charitable organization in the Netherlands. You have an independent supervisory board to oversee Bellingcat management. And you said, if we fail to live up to board-member scrutiny, they may take action against any of us. But there’s only three names listed — a tech entrepreneur in Amsterdam, a pretty well-known international policy director at Stanford Cyber Policy Center, and a director of cultural center in Amsterdam. So they don’t ring out Bob Woodward to me or something like that, not that he would be necessarily the right person to pick for here. But who are you actually accountable to?

eliot higgins

Well, this comes in a number of different forms. I think we do have the supervisory board. And we are accountable to those people. And it’s something that we’re growing as the organization is growing as well. We’re also legally accountable as well, as any organization is, when we publish something.

kara swisher

You can be sued.

eliot higgins

Yeah. Plus, we’re also accountable in the sense that we’re willing to go to court with the information that we have, and sit in front of a judge and explain it in detail and be cross-examined as well, which I think is something that’s very unusual as well. So there’s that accountability there. Also, if we publish stuff that’s untrue, we’re accountable to the people who are reading us. So we have to be very careful about making sure that what we’re publishing is accurate — that is, can be stood up — not just for our audience, but also to a courtroom, both from the perspective of being sued, but also actually using this evidence for accountability. And also just accountable to the supervisory board.

kara swisher

Right, but who chose these three individuals? Did you?

eliot higgins

Not myself personally. We now have a management team as well. So it’s not a WikiLeaks situation where I’m the Julian Assange of Bellingcat.

kara swisher

No. Then you’d be in an embassy with a cat — an actual cat. But go ahead.

eliot higgins

[CHUCKLES] Then I’m part of a board of directors at Bellingcat. So it’s myself, our business director, and my colleague Aric Toler, who was one of the first people who joined Bellingcat.

kara swisher

But how did you get these individuals, and can they fire you?

eliot higgins

No. Yeah, they can fire me. Part of the reason we became a charity was to make sure that I couldn’t become the king of Bellingcat and do what I wanted to — also because we’re required to have a yearly audit, because we want us to be transparent about who was funding us and where this money was coming from. So we approached figures— so Marietje Schakke is someone that I had known from doing some work around Brussels. The other two people, I didn’t know. But they were recommended to us as people who understood the areas we were working in. And we wanted a supervisory board, as well, that wasn’t just made up of investigators who could get very excited about our investigations. We wanted people who had an understanding of when we’re getting a bit overexcited or when —

kara swisher

Is that going to get larger? That board going to get larger?

eliot higgins

Yeah, absolutely. We’re growing as an organization. Generally, we’ve doubled in size every single year since I launched. I launched in 2014 with a Kickstarter for about $80,000. And we’ve basically doubled in size every year since then. And now we have — I think our budget is about $2.1 million now.

kara swisher

There’s no journalists on the board. That’s really interesting to me.

eliot higgins

Yeah. We did have a journalist on the board — the thing is, the journalists we know are all very excited about Bellingcat’s work. And we wanted people who wouldn’t get excited about Bellingcat’s work every single time we get over on a new investigation because they wanted to be 100% sure we had a reason for doing what we were doing.

kara swisher

You could put Dick Cheney on it.

eliot higgins

No, I really —

kara swisher

[CHUCKLING] Don’t put Dick Cheney —

eliot higgins

No. Gosh, that would make me feel dirty if I did that.

kara swisher

I’d I’m saying — he doesn’t like the media, and he has a lot of spy experience. I think you could use.

eliot higgins

[CHUCKLES] That would be terrible. No.

kara swisher

So let’s finish up talking about the business. You mentioned the workshops. How are you paying your bills?

eliot higgins

So we get, I think, about 30% of our yearly income from running workshops. And they were in-person, but they’re now all online. I would say about 10% to 15% comes from small individual donations. So this would be from things like Patreon or direct donations through the websites of our readers. Then the remaining percen t— it comes from a combination of different funding organizations. I think we’ve got, like, eight or nine. We’re actually about to publish our yearly audit, so it’ll be on there for anyone who really cares about the secrecy of it.

kara swisher

OK, but not a big Bill Gatesian kind of thing or suddenly —

eliot higgins

Yeah, it would be nice if someone came along and gave us a billion dollars to do with what we want. But we actually rather prefer that we have lots of different sources of income, because then we’re never really —

kara swisher

Yes.

eliot higgins

Like, if someone says, I’m not going to pay you any more money unless you do this, we can say, well, goodbye. We’ll post an article about that and then —

kara swisher

Yeah, don’t be beholden to a billionaire. But one of the things you do is these workshops where you train people in open-source investigations. Do you ever worry about putting powerful tools in the hands of bad guys or teaching wrong people to avoid detection?

eliot higgins

We’re pretty careful about who we invite. There’s only so much we can do to look into the background of people. But generally, we’ll have people coming from places that are big NGOs or news organizations, so they’re known quantities. We sometimes get private individuals who want to learn how to do open-source investigations. But if someone comes to us saying, I’m from the British Ministry of Defence, or I’m from the CIA, then we say no, because we don’t train military or intelligence or —

kara swisher

Well, they don’t tell you that.

eliot higgins

Well, this is the thing. It’s also, how do we know who they are? But fortunately, being open-source investigators, we always have a bit of a dig into people to make sure they’re representing themselves, because equally, it could be someone coming from Russia Today or the Russian Ministry of Defence or the GRU who’s coming to our workshops. So we have to be careful. But now everything is online as well. There’s less worry that our cups of tea are going to get poisoned whilst you’re at workshop.

kara swisher

Fair point. So one of the things you also — aren’t you training your competition? News outlets are hiring their own visual investigation teams. The New York Times poached one of your investigators, Christiaan Triebert. Do you worry about giving away your secret sauce?

eliot higgins

I think we’re still quite unique in the sense that it’s not just about doing the open-source journalism side of it, but the other outcomes that we have. So that keeps us fairly unique in that sense, because the New York Times team does really amazing work. That kind of stuff, for me, is actually good to see because that’s bringing the work we are developing into the mainstream.

kara swisher

Would you consider selling Bellingcat to a major news outlet?

eliot higgins

Well, we can’t sell Bellingcat, because it’s a charitable foundation now. So it’s not something I could do. But I wouldn’t want to do that anyway, because once you sell it to one specific kind of organization, like a news organization, it becomes a news organization.

kara swisher

So has anyone tried to buy you?

eliot higgins

No. I’ve tried to — when I first started doing this, and I realized it was something I wanted to do, I applied for jobs at, like, the BBC and ITV as a trainee journalist. And I immediately —

kara swisher

And they said no, right?

eliot higgins

— got rejected. Yeah. And then now, I’m training them. So that’s very satisfying. But the thing is, it’s like, now when people are actually asking me if I want to work for them, it’s like, no, I’m really happy with where I am at Bellingcat.

kara swisher

That’s funny. I still keep all the rejection letters I got from every newspaper. And there is a pile of them. And sometimes — like, I really admire you, Kara, as a journalist. I’m like, you wouldn’t hire me. Anyway, so Bellingcat is choosing specific cases and stories to investigate. As you said, there’s so many to do. Some critics question your impartiality. How do you answer people who have said, what’s your agenda? Why do you pick what you pick?

eliot higgins

With the Russia stuff, it’s not like we wake up thinking, we’ll investigate Russia today. It’s more like, Russia wakes up, and someone decides to assassinate someone. And we discover that.

kara swisher

Yeah. There they go again —

eliot higgins

Yeah.

kara swisher

— as Ronald Reagan would say.

eliot higgins

But we’re looking now at topics — for example, we’ve been looking at Columbia, working with local journalists there during the protests and mapping out the police and security forces violence there. There’s a million things we could do across the world, and we’re already 20 people. We have to select a region where we can start actually building the capability there through education, through collaboration.

kara swisher

Regional versus — you were looking into, who is Q, essentially? Tracing metadata and looking where Q drops occurred.

eliot higgins

Yeah, and that’s actually come from a small community of researchers who’ve been looking into that independently of Bellingcat. And we’re now giving them a platform where we can review their work, have it edited properly, and then published on the website.

kara swisher

And so what would you like to investigate most of all right now? What is of interest to Eliot Higgins?

eliot higgins

Oh God, that’s so- – this situation in Ethiopia and with Eritrea was really interesting because we did a bit of work there, and there was a lot of video footage coming from there that showed some really horrific stuff. But then you look at another part of the world where there’s new stuff. And the stuff that’s happening with Israel and Palestine is worth investigating as well. For me, it’s always about seeing if there’s any kind of sense of accountability that can be brought to what’s happening, even in the smallest kind of senses. I’ve been helping an organization just a few hours here and there called doglost.co.uk, which is a website for people who’ve had their dogs lost or stolen. And we’ve been using a number-plate-analysis technique we developed to investigate murders to help detect dog thieves. And we’ve already reunited two dogs —

kara swisher

Oh, wow.

eliot higgins

— with their families. It’s literally just a couple of hours work. But it’s—

kara swisher

Well done, Eliot.

eliot higgins

The thing is, you don’t usually get that. If you’re investigating a Syrian war crime, it’s like, OK, I will have a result in 10 years.

kara swisher

So the cats are saving dogs, right?

eliot higgins

Yeah.

kara swisher

Is that line pretty much?

eliot higgins

It’s the mice saving dogs.

kara swisher

The mice —

eliot higgins

That’s what that is.

kara swisher

The mice who bell the cats are saving dogs.

eliot higgins

It’s very confusing. [CHUCKLES]

kara swisher

All right. Eliot, thank you so much. I really appreciate this.

eliot higgins

Thank you.

kara swisher

Bye.

eliot higgins

Cheers. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Daphne Chen; edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Erick Gomez, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin, and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts. So follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you with a box of mysterious hotel cookies, download any podcast app and search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.

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