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Book Review - We Are Bellingcat: The Online Sleuths Solving Global Crimes

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The world of intelligence and espionage has always had a mysterious quality to it, inspiring the imaginations of those not allowed into the halls of Langley. But according to Elliot Higgins, traditional cloak and dagger spycraft has been replaced by teams of online investigators committed to what they call “truth and transparency,” who are reaching impressive feats in data collection from their own homes. In We Are Bellingcat: The Online Sleuths Solving Global Crimes, Higgins narrates his own journey into this world, describing how his online hobby turned into an online revolution. The book reads like a gripping spy drama for the Twitter generation, with most of the action taking place on his laptop. The book is not just a personal account, however. Instead, Higgins uses his story to question the future of intelligence and as a call-to-arms for like-minded online detectives. 

We Are Bellingcat opens in 2011, when individuals were routinely posting violent images and videos from the Syrian civil war. Higgins was absorbed by these first-hand accounts, and from his home in England he began refining his methods for investigating this data. This involved scouring the Internet for data about wartime atrocities and using open online sources to geo-locate their location. Critically, he would also identify the culprits.

Higgins’s early online work was impressive. In the opening chapter, “Revolution on a Laptop,” he describes how he painstakingly sifted through hours of online material to confirm or deny online claims about the conflict in Syria. In one such instance he poured through YouTube footage, pausing to find images of bombing sites. His work attracted the attention of the journal Foreign Policy, which used his work to help with their reporting on the war. His growing online fame planted the seeds for a broader organization dedicated to open-source investigations.

Russia’s shadow war in Crimea injected a new sense of urgency into his effort. Higgins describes the early stages on the conflict and the downing of Malaysian airlines flight MH-17 as the catalyst to turn his personal pastime into an organized collective. In seeking to demonstrate Russian responsibility, he provided a meticulously detailed reconstruction of events, revealing each video, image, and Google map screenshot he used to trace the anti-aircraft missile back to Russian forces.

Such painstaking work was too much for one investigator, however, and Higgins increasingly relied on like-minded peers. After some time, he formalized this loosely connected online community of volunteers into a collective that became known as Bellingcat. After a significant financial grant from Google, Higgins was able to pay them. Bellingcat now employs eighteen full-time investigators, whose funding comes from a range of foundations and workshops it hosts globally.

Bellingcat remains tiny compared to modern intelligence organizations, but Higgins argues that it foreshadows a dramatic change in the business of espionage. Whereas intelligence agencies collect secrets, this new group of online sleuths are motivated by their desire for transparency. Higgins believes that the rise of the Internet and social media have rendered the traditional approach obsolete, and the limits of secret intelligence is a recurring theme in the book. He recounts, for example, how the US intelligence community responded to the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with a poor-quality satellite image of the supposed launch site. From his perspective, this was a lot less valuable than what online investigators were able to uncover using open-source methods.

Higgins becomes more critical of the role of secret intelligence as the book progresses, pushing for a more crowd-sourced approach like the one taken by Bellingcat. While some of his critique is reasonable, Higgins downplays the broader purposes of government intelligence. Intelligence is not simply about piecing together post-hoc clues from secret sources. It is an instrument of statecraft. It provides policymakers with a range of analyses, both retrospective and prospective, to help inform their judgment. Whether they do this well is a fair question, yet it is not entirely clear that groups like Bellingcat can do it better.

Higgins claims that Bellingcat has no political agenda. Indeed, Bellingcat claims a kind of independence that gives it credibility. Its researchers scour the internet for information without the influence of external sources or the need for government support. This implies that Bellingcat’s analyses should be more objective and accurate.

It is not easy to evaluate this claim. One reason is that while intelligence failures have faced public scrutiny, their successes are often classified. Because intelligence is supposed to help policymakers prevent bad things from happening, their triumphs lead to non-events. And because the purposes of intelligence go beyond post-hoc investigations, comparisons are especially difficult. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is not obviously a better alternative to traditional espionage.

None of this is to say that OSINT is irrelevant or useless to policymakers. Quite the opposite. Government agencies have been increasingly keen to incorporate OSINT techniques into their operations, including collecting and analyzing data by monitoring social media data and geolocating individuals based on public information. Some observers urge them to go further. Not only should governments borrow OSINT techniques, but they should work directly with OSINT specialists in the private sector. Perhaps this would help both sides. If intelligence agencies err on the side of over classification, open-source researchers run the risk of information overload. The explosion of data that has led to the rise of groups of Bellingcat also makes it harder to separate the signal from the noise. This is a familiar problem for intelligence analysts, and their experience and expertise might prove useful.

Public-private collaboration is inherently challenging when it comes to intelligence, however. Intelligence agencies are naturally jealous of information, while OSINT analysts are champions of transparency. Given this clash of values, it is not surprising that efforts to increase cooperation often raise ethical concerns. Occasionally those concerns descend into mistrust and misunderstanding. In an important sense, We are Bellingcat reflects such a breakdown. 

The name “Bellingcat” came from the fable of mice deciding to put a bell on the cat that is after them. Their problem, of course, was figuring out who would take the risk. Higgins and his team of online sleuths believe it is their responsibility to put the bell on the cat of governments, companies, and any other nefarious organization that wants to hide information from the public. The second half of the book is a call to arms, a plea for readers to learn the tools of data analysis so that the OSINT movement might continue to grow. As more readers take up his call, fewer of them will face serious risks. Whether their collective effort improves human security – and whether it helps prevent the kind of atrocities that gave rise to Bellingcat in the first place – remains to be seen.


we are bellingcat book cover wide 

About the Author: 

Taylar Rajic is a graduate student in the School of International Service's International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program, specializing in International Negotiation and Peacebuilding in Eastern Europe. Her research interests include emerging threats in irregular warfare and adapting policy and military strategy to account for the changing landscapes in conflict zones.