Conducting Online Investigations Using Deep Web Resources

exploring

An investigative analyst can find information that is hidden from traditional search engines

What’s the first thing you do when you want to find something out about somebody you don’t know? If your answer includes the word Google, you’re like most people. But did you know that there’s a whole lot more information out there, in the invisible, or deep, web that traditional search engines don’t find? And that information might be just what you need to build a strong case in your internal investigation.

“In today’s investigative world, we’re seeing every investigation having some sort of online component,” says Cynthia Hetherington, a specialist in online and database research and investigations, trainer, speaker and author.

Diving into the Deep Web

Most investigations start online. The investigator first gathers as much information as possible from internet searches and databases because it’s cheap, easy and can be done quickly. “They take that information and they use it as intelligence to supplement the in-house, in-person, records retrieval,” says Hetherington.

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She suggests that internet research be done by an investigative analyst, and not by a traditional investigator who may not have the in-depth web knowledge to find all the relevant information. “They need the skill-set, tenacity and patience to sit in front of the computer for eight hours and really dig and dig, day after day, until they find something,” she says. And, just as importantly, they need to know where to look.

“Google only covers one per cent of what’s available on the internet. Analysts know that and are much more focused,” explains Hetherington. Analysts can search the “invisible web”, or deep web sources, including public records and social networks. By combining and re-combining information from these searches, they can uncover information and connections that are otherwise difficult to find.

Using Online Resources

Some of the most effective uses of online investigations are:

  • Security, such as watching protestors online
  • Loss prevention, locating goods in Craigslist or intellectual property on Myspace
  • Competitive intelligence
  • Opposition research
  • Asset forfeiture in a divorce, terror investigation or fraudster search
  • Due diligence investigations
  • Criminal activity, including tracing cellphones, PO boxes and e-mail addresses

Legal and Ethical Searching

Using advanced tools, investigative analysts review and extract the information they need, but they can only do what’s legally permissible, says Hetherington.  Luckily for them, most people tend to leave their profiles wide open. “That’s open source intelligence and that’s what we do,” she says. There are no laws in place that say you can’t look at someone’s Facebook account, she adds.

Of course there are ethical implications when you are digging through personal information, but those often depend on who you work for and your position, says Hetherington.

“If you’re an auditor or an accountant in a financial institution, you’re more than likely not allowed to misrepresent yourself. Private detectives, law enforcement, intelligence officers… we use subterfuge and guile all the time; they are considered official resources of the trade,” she says. At the same time, you have to have a moral compass, she adds. “If you’re a smart investigator and you’ve been doing it long enough, you know when to stop.”

Sometimes the job is easy, with Twitter being one of the most revealing sites for confessions. “One guy posted on Twitter, ‘I just left Taco Bell with 200 and a chalupa’,” says Hetherington. That case wasn’t hard to solve.

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Article Published August 15, 2012

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