GIJN recently hosted a webinar with Paul Myers, a leading international expert in online investigation. More than 300 people from some 70 countries joined as Myers, who works for the BBC and is a big favorite at GIJN conferences, shared his tips on the best tools and strategies for digging up information about people.
Due to popular demand (and because of the teething problems we had with our first global webinar!), we’re offering a repeat session with Mr. Myers on Tuesday, June 25 at 10:00 EST/ 15:00 BST / 16:00 CET / 22:00 CST. You can register here.
If you can’t make it, you can still check out his tipsheet — based on the webinar — below.
Please note: The mention of products and services does not constitute an endorsement; other products and services are available.
Google’s advanced syntax can help you search for the right person. For example:
1. Use quotation marks to link words together.
A search for John Major without quotes produces 2 billion hits, but most of them are irrelevant pages that just contain the words “major” and “john.”
The same search performed with quotation marks produces less than 2 million hits, but they all contain the exact phrase “John Major.”
2. Use OR to build optional keywords into your search.
For example, a search for the co-pilot of German Wings Flight 9525.
The search above allows us to find pages with his hometown, and either spelling of his name or his username.
3. Use site: to specify a domain or part of a URL.
For example, focusing the search on sources within the Federal Aviation Authority:
Sometimes you need information that has been removed from the web, such as a deleted tweet, website or Facebook account. There are a number of tools that can help bring the information back.
1. Search engine caches
If information has only recently been deleted and still comes up in a Google search, try clicking on the little black triangle next to its entry in the search results. This might give you access to a stored copy in the search engine’s cache.
Even though Andreas Lubitz’s Facebook page had been deleted by the time his name was revealed, a copy still existed in Google’s cache.
2. Date range searches
Some personal information can be buried by later news coverage. To go back to the time before a big news story broke, click on “Tools” and choose a date range from the time drop-down box:
Online archives are a great source for deleted or changed material. Among the best options:
Archive.is is especially good for finding deleted social media posts and accounts.
And the Wayback Machine, which is great at bringing back web content.
Searching by Image
The same photo can appear on many different websites, often with different captions.
Identifying where an image is found online can lead you to information that will identify the person in the image.
Google’s reverse image search can be found by clicking on the camera icon in Google Image’s search box.
Identifying the Right Person
As names are often very commonplace and sometimes incomplete, it is best to gather as much information as possible about the person you are looking for. This includes various factors that can be built into web and social media searches.
Think about the following issues.
• Have you got the right spelling?
• Could it be a shortened name like Dave instead of David?
• Different ways of transliterating other alphabets.
• Would they use different parents’ surnames?
• Did their name change after marriage?
• Family members’ names may appear on friends lists.
• People sometimes share the same friends across different networks.
• What job do they do?
• Which company do they work for?
• Where were they born?
• Where do they live or work?
• Email addresses can be diagnostic.
• You can find peoples’ details via Skype, Whatsapp, etc.
• You can devise somebody’s work email address with sites like Email Format.
• However, they have been hit by General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and many EU numbers are missing.
Domain name registration:
• GDPR has also hit our ability to look up who owns a domain name.
• However, historical details are provided by sites like domaintools.com.
• You can also look up currently redacted information on online archives.
• Some authorities allow you to appeal to find domain information.
•Some registration companies will release information.
Also think about what the person looks like, as well as their interests, causes and hobbies.
People Research Tools
Some online resources gather personal data into a searchable resource.
• Pipl Pro, Spokeo, etc., are dedicated people research sites and provide a wealth of personal information on the subject of your investigation. Pipl can be searched by phone number, email name and other factors. Spokeo is similar in some respects but focused on US citizens.
Searching Social Media
People have different social networks for different aspects of their lives. Each will have different followers:
• Twitter accounts might have thousands of strangers as followers.
• LinkedIn might draw in more business people.
• Facebook may be closer associates, family, friends.
Twitter has a very useful, flexible advanced search form. Other resources are also available, including:
• Tweepsect will show follows, followers and follow-backs.
• Followerwonk compares followers of two or three accounts.
• Otherside.site lets you see Twitter through the eyes of another user.
• Tweetbeaver has loads of useful Twitter search tools.
• Facebook’s search box performs a rudimentary keyword search across various areas including posts, people, photos, videos, pages and groups.
• Groups and pages also have their own built-in search which helps you find your way to a particular post.
• Facebook also has a more advanced search running on its server. The Graph Search can be activated by entering a specially formulated web address which contains codes, ID numbers and special instructions called “operators.”
Copyright (c) Paul Myers 2019. For more information, follow Paul Myers on Twitter at @paulmyersbbc.
Paul Myers is the lead consultant of the BBC’s Investigation Support initiative. He has worked at the sharp edge of online research for nearly 20 years, and has trained fellow journalists since the turn of the century. Outside of his BBC work, Myers has helped investigators at the UNDP, World Bank, Guardian, CNN and many other investigative teams. He runs the researchclinic.net website.