Using tech to investigate human rights: Berkeley students lead OSINT training for campus

Written by Shakiba Mashayekhi and Sonnet Phelps. Photos by Shakiba Mashayekhi.

Students from UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Investigations Lab and the International Relations Council of Berkeley joined forces to teach cutting-edge open source investigation tools and techniques during a Friday night workshop for more than 50 students last month.

The “Using OSINT Tech for Human Rights Investigations” workshop — funded and supported by CITRIS and the Banatao Institute — introduced students to searching Facebook and Twitter, mining corporate databases, determining the veracity of photos and videos, and more.

Esha Chhabra, writer at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

To kick off the event, special guest Esha Chhabra of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting discussed her experience as an environmental journalist investigating ethical supply chains. She also demonstrated a few specific tools she uses to fact-check information, ranging from the sustainability of cosmetics ingredients to the validity of ethical certifications in the textile industry. For example, she demonstrated the use of OpenCorporates, which is an open-source database containing information on companies and high-ranking officials within corporate structures worldwide. She also taught students to how access deeper information on sustainability reporting from the World Resources Institute, and she showed them how to look up information on toxic chemicals on the EPA’s website.

Nikhil Patel and Anjali Banerjee of Archer

Next, students heard from Anjali Banerjee and Nikhil Patel of Archer, a student-run nonprofit founded to create technology solutions for human rights and security investigations. They provided a live demo of their open-source tool for navigating the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s sanctions database. Sanctions Explorer’s robust search capabilities represent a significant upgrade to OFAC’s clunky interface and make valuable information accessible to students and professionals investigating human trafficking, arms trade, and terrorist finance chains.

Haley Willis of the Human Rights Investigations Lab

Haley Willis, a founding student manager of the HRC Lab, followed with an in-depth training in two vital steps in verifying user-generated content: geo- and chrono-location. She presented Amnesty International reports that she and several other Lab students had worked on and highlighted a number of tools for assessing visual evidence in human rights investigations, but also emphasized that these skills are useful even in casual consumption of social media content. Showing a rapt audience how to reverse image-search a suspicious photo, she advised: “If you learn one thing today, it’s to be skeptical of everything you see, and especially: reverse image-search everything anyone sends you!”

Greg Waters and Charlotte Godart (not pictured) of the Human Rights Investigations Lab

Bringing the event to a close, lab managers and trainers Charlotte Godart and Greg Waters collaborated to break down the ways in which students can use Facebook and Twitter to discover open-source content. After highlighting the differences in the utility of each platform and discussing a few tools related to searching people of interest, they provided live demos on ways to strengthen text-based searches on Facebook. They finished their presentation with a critical point of discussion and reflection: operational security and ways to keep oneself safe on public platforms.

As they grapple daily with a deluge of open-source information, UC Berkeley students need ways to engage critically with publicly accessible data. This training, made possible by a collaboration between three organizations, was an opportunity for students from across academic disciplines and interests to share tools that are useful not only for formal human rights investigations, but in assessing content they encounter constantly in their connected world.

Event flyer