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Episode
225

Bellingcat & The Rise of The Citizen Detective

Jan 4, 2022
Science & Technology
-
21
minutes

Technological advances have meant that anyone with an internet connection can investigate crimes all over the world.

In this episode, we look at how one group has managed what the most sophisticated intelligence services in the world hasn't, and has exposed crimes such as the shooting down of a civilian aeroplane and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and this is our first episode of 2022, so firstly, Happy New Year.

[00:00:29] I hope that 2022 will be filled with good news, curious learning, and some fun progress with your English.

[00:00:37] We are going to start off this year by talking about Bellingcat and The Rise of The Citizen Detective.

[00:00:45] It’s a story of mystery, of decentralisation, of Russian spies, of a democratisation of intelligence, of what happens when you put a lot of problem-solvers together, and of the magic of technological progress. 

[00:01:01] We have a lot to talk about, so let’s not waste a minute.

[00:01:07] When you think of what a detective, an investigative reporter or someone working for the intelligence services does, you might think of different types of people.

[00:01:19] Perhaps you might think of the spies of the Cold War, using fake passports and speaking perfect unaccented foreign languages, seducing people with their charm to get information, or sitting in their cars with a pair of binoculars waiting to spot someone coming out of a building.

[00:01:40] Or perhaps you are imagining a more high-tech world, you might be imagining a large room with lots of people wearing security badges sitting in front of computers, perhaps there is a huge screen on the wall with satellite imagery that is zooming in on a remote piece of desert or woodland.

[00:02:02] Something you probably aren’t imagining is someone who looks just like me or you, sitting on their sofa in their pyjamas with their laptop, a cup of tea and a biscuit next to them while the TV is on in the background and their children are running around the kitchen table.

[00:02:20] But the reality is that this third category of detective, the citizen detective or citizen journalist, is one that has been enabled by recent technology, and is taking the intelligence world by storm.

[00:02:37] One such person who falls perfectly into this third category is a man called Eliot Higgins.

[00:02:46] He had tried his hand at a career in traditional journalism, but never quite made it. 

[00:02:53] He had been working a series of administrative jobs, and it was during the civil war in Libya, in 2011, that he started to develop an interest in solving news-related problems on the internet.

[00:03:10] In 2011, the iPhone had been out for 4 years. Mobile phone ownership was growing fast all over the world, as was mobile internet, and with it, social networks.

[00:03:23] Anyone could take a picture or video, upload it to the internet, and create news. Of course, there were still plenty of traditional journalists covering the conflict in Libya, but it was hard for them to keep up.

[00:03:40] Anyone could upload a picture to Twitter with a caption of what it was, and suddenly that became “information”, it became “news”.

[00:03:52] With this came the power for misinformation, both from governments and individual actors. 

[00:04:00] A picture could be uploaded with a caption, some text claiming that this was what the picture represented. This could be used to confuse the enemy or to make people abroad believe something that wasn’t true.

[00:04:16] Higgins was a competitive person by nature, and he became super interested in trying to discover the truth behind pictures that had been uploaded by soldiers fighting in the Libyan civil war.

[00:04:31] When a rebel soldier uploaded a video of a town that he said had recently been captured from government forces, how could Higgins check whether this was true?

[00:04:44] Well, by 2011 there was plenty of freely available technology that allowed anyone to investigate this from the comfort of their own home.

[00:04:54] And this is exactly what Higgins started to do. 

[00:04:58] He used satellite software such as Google Earth, he would look for information hidden within the photo to try to understand more about it, he would use any publicly available information to try to find the truth.

[00:05:15] He started out by engaging with people on the comment section of the British Guardian newspaper, but before long he started a blog, and then his own company, a non-profit called Bellingcat.

[00:05:30] It started out as a niche, small hobby project, but within a few years Bellingcat became a household name in the intelligence community, and is an organisation that has been referenced by the CIA, by the British Intelligence Services, and has even been labelled a “foreign agent” by Russia, for reasons that will become clear in a minute.

[00:05:57] Along the way Bellingcat has transformed the way in which intelligence is gathered, allowing and encouraging anyone, anywhere, yes even me and you, to get involved in finding the truth.

[00:06:12] Higgins’ and Bellingcat’s first major success was in relation to the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the aeroplane which was shot down over Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

[00:06:27] To briefly remind you of what happened, on 17th July 2014, which was actually only two days after the Bellingcat website went live, this passenger aeroplane was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 members of the crew.

[00:06:49] The finger was quickly pointed at Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine. It’s believed that they thought they had shot a Ukrainian military plane, but accidentally shot a Malaysian plane.

[00:07:03] Although it was strongly suspected that this attack was made possible with Russian state support, it was hard to prove, and it was also hard to prove exactly who had shot the plane down and with what type of missile.

[00:07:19] Higgins got to work, and through a series of images he managed to track down on social media he found a video of a missile launcher travelling through Russia in a military convoy, then he found another video of it in Ukraine returning to Russia with one missile missing from it. 

[00:07:41] Bingo

[00:07:42] Higgins had managed, from the comfort of his home in England and completely on his own, what none of the multi-million dollar intelligence agencies in Europe and the United States had managed.

[00:07:57] And the successes continued.

[00:07:59] Bellingcat exposed the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons during the Syrian war, and the use of drones to kill civilians.

[00:08:09] And Higgins was not afraid to shine a light on the actions of Western governments as well. 

[00:08:17] On March 16, 2017, a bomb was dropped on a mosque in Aleppo, Syria, killing over 50 people who were there for the evening prayer.

[00:08:29] Most posts on social media and news stories blamed the Syrian government or Russia, but after trawling through images and videos of the event, of satellite imagery and of thousands of other images of similar attacks, Bellingcat provided very compelling evidence that it was actually the Pentagon, the US military that was responsible for the attack.

[00:08:58] The biggest scoop to date, the biggest success story for Bellingcat, was still to come.

[00:09:04] On 4th March 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian secret service agent, and his daughter Yulia, were poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, while living in the otherwise very sleepy English town of Salisbury.

[00:09:23] Skripal had been a double-agent for the British, he had been passing information to the British secret service in the 1990s, and had spent six years in Russian prison before being allowed to move to the UK, where he lived a very quiet life.

[00:09:41] When Skripal and his daughter were poisoned, the finger was immediately pointed at Russia, and really, to the man at the top, Vladimir Putin.

[00:09:51] The poison was quickly identified as Novichok, a poison developed in Russia in the 1980s, and one that was known to be used by the GRU, the Russian secret service agency.

[00:10:06] It’s almost as if Putin wanted to make this very clear that this was a state-sponsored murder and it wouldn’t have been the first time.

[00:10:16] Another Russian ex-secret service agent, Alexander Litvinenko, had been poisoned with polonium in 2006. 

[00:10:26] Litvinenko had become an enemy of the Russian state, and had fled to London in a bid to stay alive. But, he was murdered, poisoned, and in fact died in the hospital next to my former university, University College London.

[00:10:43] With the poisoning of Litvinenko and of Skripal it’s believed that Putin wanted to send a message to any other Russian secret service agent that was thinking of betraying their country that you couldn’t hide - eventually you would be found and murdered.

[00:11:01] Skripal and his daughter were rushed to hospital, but unlike Litvinenko, they recovered.

[00:11:08] Of course, this was a major diplomatic incident. There was an attempted double murder on British soil, and a foreign state was thought to be responsible.

[00:11:20] In August of that year, after all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted, the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, published the faces and names of the two men that British Intelligence forces believed had carried out the attack: Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, but saying that it was believed that these names were pseudonyms, that they weren’t their real names.

[00:11:48] With the photos and names of these two men now publicly available, Bellingcat got to work.

[00:11:56] The Bellingcat team had by then expanded dramatically, and consisted of both full-time employees and volunteers, people like me or you armed only with an internet connection and desire to seek the truth. 

[00:12:12] They had the images of the two men, so they had a broad age range. This meant they must have attended military school during a particular period, and would likely have trained in Siberia. Bellingcat went through databases of graduates of military schools, looked through photos, yearbooks, and called up other students to ask for information.

[00:12:38] They also managed to buy a black-market database of Russian passport information - copies of which are reportedly pretty easy and cheap to find online.

[00:12:50] They managed to find a match - they found a man named Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, whose photo directly matched the photo of the man spotted in Salisbury.

[00:13:02] Shortly after they managed to track down the other man from sources as varied as a car insurance database. They identified him as Dr. Alexander Yevgeniyevich Mishkin, and they knew they were onto something when they called up ex-classmates of Mishkin’s who revealed that they had been contacted by Russian authorities and instructed not to reveal any information about him.

[00:13:30] Both Mishkin and Chepiga were GRU agents, and they were a perfect match for the attempted murderers. 

[00:13:38] Again, Bellingcat and its team of amateurs and volunteers had managed to do what the multi-million pound British intelligence services hadn’t.

[00:13:49] A slightly comic turn in this story is that, despite being caught red handed, Mishkin and Chepiga, still using their pseudonyms of Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, were interviewed by Russian state TV, where they claimed that they were friends in the fitness industry who had travelled directly to Salisbury from Moscow to in order to visit the cathedral and its famous 123 metre spire.

[00:14:18] They weren’t very good assassins, but they were even worse actors. 

[00:14:23] The Skripal saga was a real turning point for Bellingcat, and for the citizen journalism movement.

[00:14:30] When Bellingcat first started it was looked down on as a group of eccentric hobbyists, people who liked problem-solving and were harmless, but weren’t really going to have any impact on the way information gathering was done.

[00:14:47] After the successes with the Malaysian airline, the Syrian civil war, multiple other smaller successes and now catching the Russian state engaging in attempted murder on foreign soil, the power of the citizen detective was clear for all to see.

[00:15:05] And since 2011, since Eliot Higgins decided to take an interest in the Civil War, numerous technological advances have made the life of the citizen detective much easier.

[00:15:18] For starters, every single day, more and more information is shared online.

[00:15:24] From photos, videos, hacked databases, social media posts, the more information that’s available online, the more evidence that is for the citizen detective.

[00:15:36] Bellingcat actually publicly releases a step-by-step account of exactly how it goes through evidence, and it’s fascinating. I’d definitely recommend you reading it - it’s all available on their website, bellingcat.com, and there are some excellent resources for how you can take part, if that's the sort of thing that sounds interesting to you.

[00:16:01] For example, if an original image file is available, there is lots of information that can come attached with it, such as the date and time the image was taken, the location, and the device it was taken on.

[00:16:16] Google Maps and Google Street View are both excellent resources, of course, and when combined with Google Earth and other satellite imagery this allows citizen detectives to accurately locate where events have taken place.

[00:16:32] Social media posts will also be timestamped, and some will also have location data, meaning it’s easy to find out where and when an event happened.

[00:16:43] Bellingcat also uses more complicated techniques, large datasets and algorithms to trawl through public data and try to seek the truth.

[00:16:54] And as a result, it is now one of the first resources that intelligence services turn to, it has received multiple awards, and as of the time of recording it had a full-time team of 18 full-time employees and more than 30 contributors in over 20 different countries, and thousands more volunteers who help comb through publicly available information and try to expose the truth.

[00:17:22] While it might be popular in the West, there’s one country in particular, or at least the government of one country, where Bellingcat does not have many friends.

[00:17:32] And that’s Russia.

[00:17:34] Indeed, in October of 2021 Bellingcat was labelled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. 

[00:17:42] The Russian government believes, or at least has publicly accused, Bellingcat of being the information warfare department of MI6, of the British Intelligence Services, and said that it is a way for the West to publicly distance itself from its information-gathering activities while exposing dirt on and embarrassing Russia.

[00:18:07] Now, of course that would be an explosive theory, but there seems to be little truth to it. Bellingcat continues to expose crimes and injustices committed by countries all over the world, including the US and its allies, and Russia is certainly not the only target of its investigations.

[00:18:28] It’s certainly convenient, though. 

[00:18:30] While UK or US intelligence services are often cautious about revealing what they know, because their enemies will be able to investigate how they found out, if Bellingcat comes out and says something, and explains how it discovered this through public information, then that’s hugely advantageous for the “official” secret service divisions.

[00:18:56] What’s more, Bellingcat has shown that it’s prepared to use techniques that government departments, at least officially, are not. As part of the Skripal investigation Bellingcat bought black-market passport data, and it isn’t afraid to do things that would get a government in a lot of trouble if it were caught.

[00:19:19] The example of the citizen detective is a one that is only poised to become more common in the coming years. 

[00:19:27] Much like it doesn’t take a huge film studio and equipment to make a video that’s put on YouTube and seen by hundreds of millions of people, or like anyone can start a blog or a podcast that reaches people all over the world, similarly the power of a group of decentralised curious researchers, all armed with a curious mind, a laptop, and some time on their hands can be just as effective, and in some cases more effective, than the highest paid, most qualified and most experienced intelligence officers in the world.

[00:20:05] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Bellingcat and The Rise of The Citizen Detective.

[00:20:12] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that perhaps this episode might have inspired you to take up the challenge and try to crack some of these internet puzzles yourself.

[00:20:25] If you are the kind of person who enjoys problem solving, then there are some great resources on the Bellingcat website - fun games like where you are given a photo, just a photo, with no more information and you have to try to figure out where exactly in the world it was taken.

[00:20:43] Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

[00:20:46] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:50] What do you think about the rise of the citizen journalist? What does it mean for the intelligence services? And is it something that you think would be fun to get involved in?

[00:21:01] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:05] The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:11] 
You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:16] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and this is our first episode of 2022, so firstly, Happy New Year.

[00:00:29] I hope that 2022 will be filled with good news, curious learning, and some fun progress with your English.

[00:00:37] We are going to start off this year by talking about Bellingcat and The Rise of The Citizen Detective.

[00:00:45] It’s a story of mystery, of decentralisation, of Russian spies, of a democratisation of intelligence, of what happens when you put a lot of problem-solvers together, and of the magic of technological progress. 

[00:01:01] We have a lot to talk about, so let’s not waste a minute.

[00:01:07] When you think of what a detective, an investigative reporter or someone working for the intelligence services does, you might think of different types of people.

[00:01:19] Perhaps you might think of the spies of the Cold War, using fake passports and speaking perfect unaccented foreign languages, seducing people with their charm to get information, or sitting in their cars with a pair of binoculars waiting to spot someone coming out of a building.

[00:01:40] Or perhaps you are imagining a more high-tech world, you might be imagining a large room with lots of people wearing security badges sitting in front of computers, perhaps there is a huge screen on the wall with satellite imagery that is zooming in on a remote piece of desert or woodland.

[00:02:02] Something you probably aren’t imagining is someone who looks just like me or you, sitting on their sofa in their pyjamas with their laptop, a cup of tea and a biscuit next to them while the TV is on in the background and their children are running around the kitchen table.

[00:02:20] But the reality is that this third category of detective, the citizen detective or citizen journalist, is one that has been enabled by recent technology, and is taking the intelligence world by storm.

[00:02:37] One such person who falls perfectly into this third category is a man called Eliot Higgins.

[00:02:46] He had tried his hand at a career in traditional journalism, but never quite made it. 

[00:02:53] He had been working a series of administrative jobs, and it was during the civil war in Libya, in 2011, that he started to develop an interest in solving news-related problems on the internet.

[00:03:10] In 2011, the iPhone had been out for 4 years. Mobile phone ownership was growing fast all over the world, as was mobile internet, and with it, social networks.

[00:03:23] Anyone could take a picture or video, upload it to the internet, and create news. Of course, there were still plenty of traditional journalists covering the conflict in Libya, but it was hard for them to keep up.

[00:03:40] Anyone could upload a picture to Twitter with a caption of what it was, and suddenly that became “information”, it became “news”.

[00:03:52] With this came the power for misinformation, both from governments and individual actors. 

[00:04:00] A picture could be uploaded with a caption, some text claiming that this was what the picture represented. This could be used to confuse the enemy or to make people abroad believe something that wasn’t true.

[00:04:16] Higgins was a competitive person by nature, and he became super interested in trying to discover the truth behind pictures that had been uploaded by soldiers fighting in the Libyan civil war.

[00:04:31] When a rebel soldier uploaded a video of a town that he said had recently been captured from government forces, how could Higgins check whether this was true?

[00:04:44] Well, by 2011 there was plenty of freely available technology that allowed anyone to investigate this from the comfort of their own home.

[00:04:54] And this is exactly what Higgins started to do. 

[00:04:58] He used satellite software such as Google Earth, he would look for information hidden within the photo to try to understand more about it, he would use any publicly available information to try to find the truth.

[00:05:15] He started out by engaging with people on the comment section of the British Guardian newspaper, but before long he started a blog, and then his own company, a non-profit called Bellingcat.

[00:05:30] It started out as a niche, small hobby project, but within a few years Bellingcat became a household name in the intelligence community, and is an organisation that has been referenced by the CIA, by the British Intelligence Services, and has even been labelled a “foreign agent” by Russia, for reasons that will become clear in a minute.

[00:05:57] Along the way Bellingcat has transformed the way in which intelligence is gathered, allowing and encouraging anyone, anywhere, yes even me and you, to get involved in finding the truth.

[00:06:12] Higgins’ and Bellingcat’s first major success was in relation to the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the aeroplane which was shot down over Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

[00:06:27] To briefly remind you of what happened, on 17th July 2014, which was actually only two days after the Bellingcat website went live, this passenger aeroplane was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 members of the crew.

[00:06:49] The finger was quickly pointed at Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine. It’s believed that they thought they had shot a Ukrainian military plane, but accidentally shot a Malaysian plane.

[00:07:03] Although it was strongly suspected that this attack was made possible with Russian state support, it was hard to prove, and it was also hard to prove exactly who had shot the plane down and with what type of missile.

[00:07:19] Higgins got to work, and through a series of images he managed to track down on social media he found a video of a missile launcher travelling through Russia in a military convoy, then he found another video of it in Ukraine returning to Russia with one missile missing from it. 

[00:07:41] Bingo

[00:07:42] Higgins had managed, from the comfort of his home in England and completely on his own, what none of the multi-million dollar intelligence agencies in Europe and the United States had managed.

[00:07:57] And the successes continued.

[00:07:59] Bellingcat exposed the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons during the Syrian war, and the use of drones to kill civilians.

[00:08:09] And Higgins was not afraid to shine a light on the actions of Western governments as well. 

[00:08:17] On March 16, 2017, a bomb was dropped on a mosque in Aleppo, Syria, killing over 50 people who were there for the evening prayer.

[00:08:29] Most posts on social media and news stories blamed the Syrian government or Russia, but after trawling through images and videos of the event, of satellite imagery and of thousands of other images of similar attacks, Bellingcat provided very compelling evidence that it was actually the Pentagon, the US military that was responsible for the attack.

[00:08:58] The biggest scoop to date, the biggest success story for Bellingcat, was still to come.

[00:09:04] On 4th March 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian secret service agent, and his daughter Yulia, were poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, while living in the otherwise very sleepy English town of Salisbury.

[00:09:23] Skripal had been a double-agent for the British, he had been passing information to the British secret service in the 1990s, and had spent six years in Russian prison before being allowed to move to the UK, where he lived a very quiet life.

[00:09:41] When Skripal and his daughter were poisoned, the finger was immediately pointed at Russia, and really, to the man at the top, Vladimir Putin.

[00:09:51] The poison was quickly identified as Novichok, a poison developed in Russia in the 1980s, and one that was known to be used by the GRU, the Russian secret service agency.

[00:10:06] It’s almost as if Putin wanted to make this very clear that this was a state-sponsored murder and it wouldn’t have been the first time.

[00:10:16] Another Russian ex-secret service agent, Alexander Litvinenko, had been poisoned with polonium in 2006. 

[00:10:26] Litvinenko had become an enemy of the Russian state, and had fled to London in a bid to stay alive. But, he was murdered, poisoned, and in fact died in the hospital next to my former university, University College London.

[00:10:43] With the poisoning of Litvinenko and of Skripal it’s believed that Putin wanted to send a message to any other Russian secret service agent that was thinking of betraying their country that you couldn’t hide - eventually you would be found and murdered.

[00:11:01] Skripal and his daughter were rushed to hospital, but unlike Litvinenko, they recovered.

[00:11:08] Of course, this was a major diplomatic incident. There was an attempted double murder on British soil, and a foreign state was thought to be responsible.

[00:11:20] In August of that year, after all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted, the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, published the faces and names of the two men that British Intelligence forces believed had carried out the attack: Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, but saying that it was believed that these names were pseudonyms, that they weren’t their real names.

[00:11:48] With the photos and names of these two men now publicly available, Bellingcat got to work.

[00:11:56] The Bellingcat team had by then expanded dramatically, and consisted of both full-time employees and volunteers, people like me or you armed only with an internet connection and desire to seek the truth. 

[00:12:12] They had the images of the two men, so they had a broad age range. This meant they must have attended military school during a particular period, and would likely have trained in Siberia. Bellingcat went through databases of graduates of military schools, looked through photos, yearbooks, and called up other students to ask for information.

[00:12:38] They also managed to buy a black-market database of Russian passport information - copies of which are reportedly pretty easy and cheap to find online.

[00:12:50] They managed to find a match - they found a man named Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, whose photo directly matched the photo of the man spotted in Salisbury.

[00:13:02] Shortly after they managed to track down the other man from sources as varied as a car insurance database. They identified him as Dr. Alexander Yevgeniyevich Mishkin, and they knew they were onto something when they called up ex-classmates of Mishkin’s who revealed that they had been contacted by Russian authorities and instructed not to reveal any information about him.

[00:13:30] Both Mishkin and Chepiga were GRU agents, and they were a perfect match for the attempted murderers. 

[00:13:38] Again, Bellingcat and its team of amateurs and volunteers had managed to do what the multi-million pound British intelligence services hadn’t.

[00:13:49] A slightly comic turn in this story is that, despite being caught red handed, Mishkin and Chepiga, still using their pseudonyms of Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, were interviewed by Russian state TV, where they claimed that they were friends in the fitness industry who had travelled directly to Salisbury from Moscow to in order to visit the cathedral and its famous 123 metre spire.

[00:14:18] They weren’t very good assassins, but they were even worse actors. 

[00:14:23] The Skripal saga was a real turning point for Bellingcat, and for the citizen journalism movement.

[00:14:30] When Bellingcat first started it was looked down on as a group of eccentric hobbyists, people who liked problem-solving and were harmless, but weren’t really going to have any impact on the way information gathering was done.

[00:14:47] After the successes with the Malaysian airline, the Syrian civil war, multiple other smaller successes and now catching the Russian state engaging in attempted murder on foreign soil, the power of the citizen detective was clear for all to see.

[00:15:05] And since 2011, since Eliot Higgins decided to take an interest in the Civil War, numerous technological advances have made the life of the citizen detective much easier.

[00:15:18] For starters, every single day, more and more information is shared online.

[00:15:24] From photos, videos, hacked databases, social media posts, the more information that’s available online, the more evidence that is for the citizen detective.

[00:15:36] Bellingcat actually publicly releases a step-by-step account of exactly how it goes through evidence, and it’s fascinating. I’d definitely recommend you reading it - it’s all available on their website, bellingcat.com, and there are some excellent resources for how you can take part, if that's the sort of thing that sounds interesting to you.

[00:16:01] For example, if an original image file is available, there is lots of information that can come attached with it, such as the date and time the image was taken, the location, and the device it was taken on.

[00:16:16] Google Maps and Google Street View are both excellent resources, of course, and when combined with Google Earth and other satellite imagery this allows citizen detectives to accurately locate where events have taken place.

[00:16:32] Social media posts will also be timestamped, and some will also have location data, meaning it’s easy to find out where and when an event happened.

[00:16:43] Bellingcat also uses more complicated techniques, large datasets and algorithms to trawl through public data and try to seek the truth.

[00:16:54] And as a result, it is now one of the first resources that intelligence services turn to, it has received multiple awards, and as of the time of recording it had a full-time team of 18 full-time employees and more than 30 contributors in over 20 different countries, and thousands more volunteers who help comb through publicly available information and try to expose the truth.

[00:17:22] While it might be popular in the West, there’s one country in particular, or at least the government of one country, where Bellingcat does not have many friends.

[00:17:32] And that’s Russia.

[00:17:34] Indeed, in October of 2021 Bellingcat was labelled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. 

[00:17:42] The Russian government believes, or at least has publicly accused, Bellingcat of being the information warfare department of MI6, of the British Intelligence Services, and said that it is a way for the West to publicly distance itself from its information-gathering activities while exposing dirt on and embarrassing Russia.

[00:18:07] Now, of course that would be an explosive theory, but there seems to be little truth to it. Bellingcat continues to expose crimes and injustices committed by countries all over the world, including the US and its allies, and Russia is certainly not the only target of its investigations.

[00:18:28] It’s certainly convenient, though. 

[00:18:30] While UK or US intelligence services are often cautious about revealing what they know, because their enemies will be able to investigate how they found out, if Bellingcat comes out and says something, and explains how it discovered this through public information, then that’s hugely advantageous for the “official” secret service divisions.

[00:18:56] What’s more, Bellingcat has shown that it’s prepared to use techniques that government departments, at least officially, are not. As part of the Skripal investigation Bellingcat bought black-market passport data, and it isn’t afraid to do things that would get a government in a lot of trouble if it were caught.

[00:19:19] The example of the citizen detective is a one that is only poised to become more common in the coming years. 

[00:19:27] Much like it doesn’t take a huge film studio and equipment to make a video that’s put on YouTube and seen by hundreds of millions of people, or like anyone can start a blog or a podcast that reaches people all over the world, similarly the power of a group of decentralised curious researchers, all armed with a curious mind, a laptop, and some time on their hands can be just as effective, and in some cases more effective, than the highest paid, most qualified and most experienced intelligence officers in the world.

[00:20:05] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Bellingcat and The Rise of The Citizen Detective.

[00:20:12] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that perhaps this episode might have inspired you to take up the challenge and try to crack some of these internet puzzles yourself.

[00:20:25] If you are the kind of person who enjoys problem solving, then there are some great resources on the Bellingcat website - fun games like where you are given a photo, just a photo, with no more information and you have to try to figure out where exactly in the world it was taken.

[00:20:43] Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

[00:20:46] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:50] What do you think about the rise of the citizen journalist? What does it mean for the intelligence services? And is it something that you think would be fun to get involved in?

[00:21:01] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:05] The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:11] 
You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:16] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and this is our first episode of 2022, so firstly, Happy New Year.

[00:00:29] I hope that 2022 will be filled with good news, curious learning, and some fun progress with your English.

[00:00:37] We are going to start off this year by talking about Bellingcat and The Rise of The Citizen Detective.

[00:00:45] It’s a story of mystery, of decentralisation, of Russian spies, of a democratisation of intelligence, of what happens when you put a lot of problem-solvers together, and of the magic of technological progress. 

[00:01:01] We have a lot to talk about, so let’s not waste a minute.

[00:01:07] When you think of what a detective, an investigative reporter or someone working for the intelligence services does, you might think of different types of people.

[00:01:19] Perhaps you might think of the spies of the Cold War, using fake passports and speaking perfect unaccented foreign languages, seducing people with their charm to get information, or sitting in their cars with a pair of binoculars waiting to spot someone coming out of a building.

[00:01:40] Or perhaps you are imagining a more high-tech world, you might be imagining a large room with lots of people wearing security badges sitting in front of computers, perhaps there is a huge screen on the wall with satellite imagery that is zooming in on a remote piece of desert or woodland.

[00:02:02] Something you probably aren’t imagining is someone who looks just like me or you, sitting on their sofa in their pyjamas with their laptop, a cup of tea and a biscuit next to them while the TV is on in the background and their children are running around the kitchen table.

[00:02:20] But the reality is that this third category of detective, the citizen detective or citizen journalist, is one that has been enabled by recent technology, and is taking the intelligence world by storm.

[00:02:37] One such person who falls perfectly into this third category is a man called Eliot Higgins.

[00:02:46] He had tried his hand at a career in traditional journalism, but never quite made it. 

[00:02:53] He had been working a series of administrative jobs, and it was during the civil war in Libya, in 2011, that he started to develop an interest in solving news-related problems on the internet.

[00:03:10] In 2011, the iPhone had been out for 4 years. Mobile phone ownership was growing fast all over the world, as was mobile internet, and with it, social networks.

[00:03:23] Anyone could take a picture or video, upload it to the internet, and create news. Of course, there were still plenty of traditional journalists covering the conflict in Libya, but it was hard for them to keep up.

[00:03:40] Anyone could upload a picture to Twitter with a caption of what it was, and suddenly that became “information”, it became “news”.

[00:03:52] With this came the power for misinformation, both from governments and individual actors. 

[00:04:00] A picture could be uploaded with a caption, some text claiming that this was what the picture represented. This could be used to confuse the enemy or to make people abroad believe something that wasn’t true.

[00:04:16] Higgins was a competitive person by nature, and he became super interested in trying to discover the truth behind pictures that had been uploaded by soldiers fighting in the Libyan civil war.

[00:04:31] When a rebel soldier uploaded a video of a town that he said had recently been captured from government forces, how could Higgins check whether this was true?

[00:04:44] Well, by 2011 there was plenty of freely available technology that allowed anyone to investigate this from the comfort of their own home.

[00:04:54] And this is exactly what Higgins started to do. 

[00:04:58] He used satellite software such as Google Earth, he would look for information hidden within the photo to try to understand more about it, he would use any publicly available information to try to find the truth.

[00:05:15] He started out by engaging with people on the comment section of the British Guardian newspaper, but before long he started a blog, and then his own company, a non-profit called Bellingcat.

[00:05:30] It started out as a niche, small hobby project, but within a few years Bellingcat became a household name in the intelligence community, and is an organisation that has been referenced by the CIA, by the British Intelligence Services, and has even been labelled a “foreign agent” by Russia, for reasons that will become clear in a minute.

[00:05:57] Along the way Bellingcat has transformed the way in which intelligence is gathered, allowing and encouraging anyone, anywhere, yes even me and you, to get involved in finding the truth.

[00:06:12] Higgins’ and Bellingcat’s first major success was in relation to the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the aeroplane which was shot down over Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

[00:06:27] To briefly remind you of what happened, on 17th July 2014, which was actually only two days after the Bellingcat website went live, this passenger aeroplane was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 members of the crew.

[00:06:49] The finger was quickly pointed at Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine. It’s believed that they thought they had shot a Ukrainian military plane, but accidentally shot a Malaysian plane.

[00:07:03] Although it was strongly suspected that this attack was made possible with Russian state support, it was hard to prove, and it was also hard to prove exactly who had shot the plane down and with what type of missile.

[00:07:19] Higgins got to work, and through a series of images he managed to track down on social media he found a video of a missile launcher travelling through Russia in a military convoy, then he found another video of it in Ukraine returning to Russia with one missile missing from it. 

[00:07:41] Bingo

[00:07:42] Higgins had managed, from the comfort of his home in England and completely on his own, what none of the multi-million dollar intelligence agencies in Europe and the United States had managed.

[00:07:57] And the successes continued.

[00:07:59] Bellingcat exposed the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons during the Syrian war, and the use of drones to kill civilians.

[00:08:09] And Higgins was not afraid to shine a light on the actions of Western governments as well. 

[00:08:17] On March 16, 2017, a bomb was dropped on a mosque in Aleppo, Syria, killing over 50 people who were there for the evening prayer.

[00:08:29] Most posts on social media and news stories blamed the Syrian government or Russia, but after trawling through images and videos of the event, of satellite imagery and of thousands of other images of similar attacks, Bellingcat provided very compelling evidence that it was actually the Pentagon, the US military that was responsible for the attack.

[00:08:58] The biggest scoop to date, the biggest success story for Bellingcat, was still to come.

[00:09:04] On 4th March 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian secret service agent, and his daughter Yulia, were poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, while living in the otherwise very sleepy English town of Salisbury.

[00:09:23] Skripal had been a double-agent for the British, he had been passing information to the British secret service in the 1990s, and had spent six years in Russian prison before being allowed to move to the UK, where he lived a very quiet life.

[00:09:41] When Skripal and his daughter were poisoned, the finger was immediately pointed at Russia, and really, to the man at the top, Vladimir Putin.

[00:09:51] The poison was quickly identified as Novichok, a poison developed in Russia in the 1980s, and one that was known to be used by the GRU, the Russian secret service agency.

[00:10:06] It’s almost as if Putin wanted to make this very clear that this was a state-sponsored murder and it wouldn’t have been the first time.

[00:10:16] Another Russian ex-secret service agent, Alexander Litvinenko, had been poisoned with polonium in 2006. 

[00:10:26] Litvinenko had become an enemy of the Russian state, and had fled to London in a bid to stay alive. But, he was murdered, poisoned, and in fact died in the hospital next to my former university, University College London.

[00:10:43] With the poisoning of Litvinenko and of Skripal it’s believed that Putin wanted to send a message to any other Russian secret service agent that was thinking of betraying their country that you couldn’t hide - eventually you would be found and murdered.

[00:11:01] Skripal and his daughter were rushed to hospital, but unlike Litvinenko, they recovered.

[00:11:08] Of course, this was a major diplomatic incident. There was an attempted double murder on British soil, and a foreign state was thought to be responsible.

[00:11:20] In August of that year, after all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted, the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, published the faces and names of the two men that British Intelligence forces believed had carried out the attack: Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, but saying that it was believed that these names were pseudonyms, that they weren’t their real names.

[00:11:48] With the photos and names of these two men now publicly available, Bellingcat got to work.

[00:11:56] The Bellingcat team had by then expanded dramatically, and consisted of both full-time employees and volunteers, people like me or you armed only with an internet connection and desire to seek the truth. 

[00:12:12] They had the images of the two men, so they had a broad age range. This meant they must have attended military school during a particular period, and would likely have trained in Siberia. Bellingcat went through databases of graduates of military schools, looked through photos, yearbooks, and called up other students to ask for information.

[00:12:38] They also managed to buy a black-market database of Russian passport information - copies of which are reportedly pretty easy and cheap to find online.

[00:12:50] They managed to find a match - they found a man named Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, whose photo directly matched the photo of the man spotted in Salisbury.

[00:13:02] Shortly after they managed to track down the other man from sources as varied as a car insurance database. They identified him as Dr. Alexander Yevgeniyevich Mishkin, and they knew they were onto something when they called up ex-classmates of Mishkin’s who revealed that they had been contacted by Russian authorities and instructed not to reveal any information about him.

[00:13:30] Both Mishkin and Chepiga were GRU agents, and they were a perfect match for the attempted murderers. 

[00:13:38] Again, Bellingcat and its team of amateurs and volunteers had managed to do what the multi-million pound British intelligence services hadn’t.

[00:13:49] A slightly comic turn in this story is that, despite being caught red handed, Mishkin and Chepiga, still using their pseudonyms of Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, were interviewed by Russian state TV, where they claimed that they were friends in the fitness industry who had travelled directly to Salisbury from Moscow to in order to visit the cathedral and its famous 123 metre spire.

[00:14:18] They weren’t very good assassins, but they were even worse actors. 

[00:14:23] The Skripal saga was a real turning point for Bellingcat, and for the citizen journalism movement.

[00:14:30] When Bellingcat first started it was looked down on as a group of eccentric hobbyists, people who liked problem-solving and were harmless, but weren’t really going to have any impact on the way information gathering was done.

[00:14:47] After the successes with the Malaysian airline, the Syrian civil war, multiple other smaller successes and now catching the Russian state engaging in attempted murder on foreign soil, the power of the citizen detective was clear for all to see.

[00:15:05] And since 2011, since Eliot Higgins decided to take an interest in the Civil War, numerous technological advances have made the life of the citizen detective much easier.

[00:15:18] For starters, every single day, more and more information is shared online.

[00:15:24] From photos, videos, hacked databases, social media posts, the more information that’s available online, the more evidence that is for the citizen detective.

[00:15:36] Bellingcat actually publicly releases a step-by-step account of exactly how it goes through evidence, and it’s fascinating. I’d definitely recommend you reading it - it’s all available on their website, bellingcat.com, and there are some excellent resources for how you can take part, if that's the sort of thing that sounds interesting to you.

[00:16:01] For example, if an original image file is available, there is lots of information that can come attached with it, such as the date and time the image was taken, the location, and the device it was taken on.

[00:16:16] Google Maps and Google Street View are both excellent resources, of course, and when combined with Google Earth and other satellite imagery this allows citizen detectives to accurately locate where events have taken place.

[00:16:32] Social media posts will also be timestamped, and some will also have location data, meaning it’s easy to find out where and when an event happened.

[00:16:43] Bellingcat also uses more complicated techniques, large datasets and algorithms to trawl through public data and try to seek the truth.

[00:16:54] And as a result, it is now one of the first resources that intelligence services turn to, it has received multiple awards, and as of the time of recording it had a full-time team of 18 full-time employees and more than 30 contributors in over 20 different countries, and thousands more volunteers who help comb through publicly available information and try to expose the truth.

[00:17:22] While it might be popular in the West, there’s one country in particular, or at least the government of one country, where Bellingcat does not have many friends.

[00:17:32] And that’s Russia.

[00:17:34] Indeed, in October of 2021 Bellingcat was labelled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. 

[00:17:42] The Russian government believes, or at least has publicly accused, Bellingcat of being the information warfare department of MI6, of the British Intelligence Services, and said that it is a way for the West to publicly distance itself from its information-gathering activities while exposing dirt on and embarrassing Russia.

[00:18:07] Now, of course that would be an explosive theory, but there seems to be little truth to it. Bellingcat continues to expose crimes and injustices committed by countries all over the world, including the US and its allies, and Russia is certainly not the only target of its investigations.

[00:18:28] It’s certainly convenient, though. 

[00:18:30] While UK or US intelligence services are often cautious about revealing what they know, because their enemies will be able to investigate how they found out, if Bellingcat comes out and says something, and explains how it discovered this through public information, then that’s hugely advantageous for the “official” secret service divisions.

[00:18:56] What’s more, Bellingcat has shown that it’s prepared to use techniques that government departments, at least officially, are not. As part of the Skripal investigation Bellingcat bought black-market passport data, and it isn’t afraid to do things that would get a government in a lot of trouble if it were caught.

[00:19:19] The example of the citizen detective is a one that is only poised to become more common in the coming years. 

[00:19:27] Much like it doesn’t take a huge film studio and equipment to make a video that’s put on YouTube and seen by hundreds of millions of people, or like anyone can start a blog or a podcast that reaches people all over the world, similarly the power of a group of decentralised curious researchers, all armed with a curious mind, a laptop, and some time on their hands can be just as effective, and in some cases more effective, than the highest paid, most qualified and most experienced intelligence officers in the world.

[00:20:05] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Bellingcat and The Rise of The Citizen Detective.

[00:20:12] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that perhaps this episode might have inspired you to take up the challenge and try to crack some of these internet puzzles yourself.

[00:20:25] If you are the kind of person who enjoys problem solving, then there are some great resources on the Bellingcat website - fun games like where you are given a photo, just a photo, with no more information and you have to try to figure out where exactly in the world it was taken.

[00:20:43] Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

[00:20:46] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:50] What do you think about the rise of the citizen journalist? What does it mean for the intelligence services? And is it something that you think would be fun to get involved in?

[00:21:01] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:05] The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:11] 
You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:16] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]