Yes we can… but should we?

OSINT Essentials
6 min readOct 16, 2020

Ethical issues for journalists in OSINT, investigation, and online verification

Man using a computer in a dakened room
Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash

* This post is based on a recent talk given at Trusted Media Summit 2020 that is also part of workshops on online investigation and verification given to journalists worldwide. It consists of thoughts and anecdotal examples arising from a decade of working in the field, and is not to be taken as legal advice.

Over the past few years, increasing numbers of people have become aware of the possibilities of digging up online information. Although not an entirely new phenomenon, it has been given a huge boost by some high-profile efforts.

Journalists, activists, and investigators have been thrilled by the exploits of maverick operators such as Bellingcat, as well as more established players like the New York Times and the BBC (Warning: Some of the content linked to contains distressing images).

Netflix, meanwhile, captured the public imagination with the documentary Don’t F**k WIth Cats, which chronicled the efforts of a group of everyday people whose online sleuthing contributed to the unmasking and apprehension of a killer.

Clearly, we can do many things in the pursuit of information that not so long ago would have been impossible. The question that is maybe not often enough asked is “Should we?”

The Spying Game

OSINT — Open-Source Intelligence — is a term that has gained increased currency in recent years. It can mean a lot of things, depending on who you ask — even the title of my own website uses it in a somewhat less than fully earnest way.

Dictionary definitions of “Intelligence” largely connect it with military or political use, or in terms of something to be applied when dealing with enemies. Cambridge, for example, defines it as:

secret information about the governments of other countries, especially enemy governments, or a group of people who collect and deal with this information

The internet has of course broken down many such walls and restrictions. Judging by conversations I’ve heard over the years, however — with references to “infiltration” and…