How to tell the geolocation of places based on old sources using OSINT — a case study
As this is my first post I wanted to write a little introduction first, to explain the goal of my writings and what you can expect from me.
If you are active on Twitter or if you follow the war in Syria and Ukraine closely or maybe if you have read about fake news, you probably noticed that there are a lot of people who have made their profession or hobby (my case) out of verifying online visual material such as videos and pictures.
You might have heard about Bellingcat for example and their work. For example their investigation into the downing of the MH17 flight that was flying over Ukraine. If you don’t know Bellingcat I highly recommend you to have a quick glance at their blog.
Something that the Bellingcat collective does quite extensively is using Open Source information to track down the location of pictures. The Open Source information I am talking about can be anything, but most commonly pictures you find on Google or Yandex, satellite images and street view panoramas on Google Maps and historical satellite images from Google Earth. Moreover they make use of freely accessible data shared on social media such as Facebook and VKontakte.
You might know everything I am telling you right now, but I wanted to share some of my experience that I gained from participating in the daily quizzes that are available on Twitter — please follow the Quiztime bot to get updates, as well as some of the experience that I gained doing my own mini-investigations. As mentioned before, I am not a journalist and not a full-time OSINT investigator. Just someone who who is interested in this and who started to follow online discussions on this topic.
Where was it filmed?
Today I wanted to focus on one of these mini-investigations that I did after watching a Turkish movie from 2006, Kader from director Zeki Demirkubuz.
After watching the movie I got curious and wanted to know the exact locations where they shot this movie. I limited myself to the scenes that were shot in Istanbul.
The first location that I want to focus on is the house of one of the main characters called Uğur. You can see the building in which she lives in a couple of different scenes:
This is basically all we get to see from her house in the movie (from the outside). There are a few other scenes, but they basically show the same thing and they are less clear. Now let’s analyze these pictures and what other information we have at our disposal.
- We know that the beginning of the story takes place in Istanbul and that it was presumably shot there. How do I know that? Well, for this you need to watch it first. Secondly there is another scene which shows one bridge that is easily identifiable and located in a particular area of Istanbul.
This is a big bridge and of these there are very few in Istanbul. There are two that extend over the Bosporus and a few others that connect Beyoğlu with Fatih and Eyüp or other neighborhoods around that area. If you go to Google Maps and check each bridge using Street View you will notice that the bridge from the movie corresponds with the Golden Horn Bridge (a.k.a Haliç Köprüsü). So now we know on which side of Istanbul we can focus. Which is the European side of Istanbul, more specifically the area near the Golden Horn. This is the easiest part though, as it only takes checking the major bridges that exist in Istanbul.
- Another thing we know and that actually works in our disadvantage is that the movie was released in 2006 and filmed either in 2006 or a year or two before. How is this bad news? Well, back then we didn’t have Street View and many buildings might have changed, have been demolished and so on.
Which tools to use, how to find it?
Now we must spend time thinking about the method we want to use to find out where it was filmed. We must find out which online resources we can use to identify where this building is located.
Let’s start thinking about the usual, most frequently used tools by geolocation enthusiasts worldwide:
- Google Maps. Pros: has street view that covers most neighborhoods and areas of Istanbul. You can also see historic street view. It is easy to use, you have a 3D tool that you can enable to see some buildings and you can analyze the terrain (to use this enable hardware acceleration in your browser settings).
Cons: doesn’t have historic satellite images.
- Google Earth. Pros: historic satellite images, which is important in this case as we’re investigating an area based on video material that is more than 10 years old. Many of the pros I already mentioned for Google Maps.
Cons: but you can’t see older street view panoramas and it is a bit less comfortable for you to use compared to Google Maps in my opinion.
- Yandex maps: has street view for Turkey as well. Even before Google launched its street view, Yandex already had this service. In other words it also has older panoramas. When I started investigating you couldn’t toggle between the latest panoramas and the older ones, now you can.
On the other hand you cannot see old satellite images with it.
- Google search including reverse image search.
- Yandex search including reverse image search.
- Google Translate. After all, I assume most of you don’t speak Turkish. Don’t worry you can use it to translate just very basic things.
The tools listed above are the most typical tools that people use no matter the location or country, but we might also want to use sites that provide Open Source data that are more specific to Istanbul.
If you Google for street view services in Turkey and Istanbul you might find out that the Istanbul municipality has its own site with Istanbul maps, historical maps and satellite images, street view and terrain analysis.
At this moment we can limit ourselves to the tools above.
What I am going to tell you now isn’t the way I found it myself. Often you will find something and realize that it was right under your nose the whole time. In my case it was no different, I found it by trial and error just trying every likely position on the map until I found it. But I will focus now on a much more efficient way of finding it.
In the movie we see numerous other places that are probably easier to identify and that were probably shot in the same area. Easy targets are those that have a clear, legible name. E.g. the scene where one of the main characters stands in front of a jewelry store. The name of the store is clearly visible.
This is a much easier target than the apartment as there is a name and we might get lucky if we Google the name of this store. After all, we know what kind of store it is, the city and its name, and most importantly, we know an approximate date of when this scene was taken, 2006 or a little bit earlier.
Still the same scene but a different shot, another name is visible. This time it’s probably a restaurant, called Ceren. Those two places are probably on the same street or close to each other.
Let’s try googling Ceren first:
If you look closely you see that Ceren is a Börek Salonu, it is almost illegible but I was still able to make it out. So here goes my Google query:
And let’s click on the first result. If you look at the first three results you see they are all in a district called Kağıthane.
There are some contradictions. Some sites say it’s on Ergün Sokak 43, some sites say it’s on Sokullu Caddesi 43. If we look on the map we see that Ergün Sk. 43 doesn’t exist but Sokullu Caddesi 43 does, moreover it is on the corner with Ergün Sokak. We can check the panorama to see if the location looks similar, but I will skip this part for now.
Next let’s see if there is a jewelry store called Topaloğlu kuyumculuk in Nurtepe. Check my Google query, below:
Let’s see where Nurtepe is on the map and how far it is from the Golden Horn bridge we found earlier. As shown below, it’s not too far.
Further proof can be found when Uğur is seen crossing the street.
If we use the street view functions of Yandex and İstanbul Şehir Haritası on the street we previously found, Sokullu Caddesi, we can double check our findings.
When you see the street view above you can tell that a lot has been changed, but that the trees still correspond. It looks like they lowered the curb and fenced the little playground, but we can still tell this is the place because it’s in the same area as those jewelers we previously mentioned. Admittedly, the evidence is slim, but when you add everything together you can be almost sure it is the same place. There are just too many coincidences.
A recap before we continue
Now that we know where many of the scenes were shot it is easier to find the remaining locations. You can try to find a location at once, but this can take very long. Of course we are assuming scene A was filmed near scene B, which isn’t always the case but when you have little visual clues it is worth finding the easier locations first and it might give you a hint in which area it could be.
We analyzed the visual clues from the scenes that show the apartment that we want to find and came to the conclusion that:
- The apartment Uğur lives in in the movie is near a big square.
- That square is surrounded by a fence that can easily be distinguished from others.
- There are floodlights on that square indicating that there might be either a construction site or a sports court nearby.
- We discovered that most scenes were shot in the Kâğıthane, Beyoğlu and Eyüp area so we want to focus on this area and more specifically on Nurtepe.
No tricks, just discipline
Sometimes there are things you can do to find a location more quickly, for example when there is a name of a shop or when there is a remarkable landmark on the picture/video. In such cases a quick Google search might be everything that’s needed to find the location you’re interested in, but in a lot of cases we are not that lucky.
This is such a case, we don’t have a lot of visual clues to go by except for the 4 clues that we noted in the recap.
With the above clues in mind let’s have a look at the map.
I have added circles and shapes, these are just places that I would first check. Why these places? Just because from afar they seem to correspond with the visual clues from the video.
- They are near houses and apartments and look like they are or might be big squares, parks or playgrounds.
- From this distance we cannot tell if there are any fences surrounding it, we will need to use some kind of street view to determine this.
- Idem, not sure if there are floodlights at those places, but at some of these places there seem to be some football pitches which could mean that there are some floodlights there as well.
- All of these places are in the Kâğıthane, Beyoğlu, Eyüp area. Some of them are in Nurtepe.
You might want to do a Google search to search for all parks, squares, playgrounds and sport courts in that area, but I chose not to do that.
Before we start analyzing each and every circle I placed on the map we must prioritize. We want to do it as efficiently as possible so we have to make a kind of list in our minds (or feel free to make a real list of likely places) from where we can start. Which is the most likely place judging purely by how it looks from above? A place in Nurtepe that meets the previously mentioned conditions perhaps.Therefore, let’s start with the places in Nurtepe that are likely to have floodlights and that look the most like a square, not just like a few empty lots.
Judging from above this might as well be the best place to start:
It is a square, near apartments and it is a likely place to have floodlights due to the football pitch. Moreover, it is very close to one of the other places we have found, Sokullu caddesi.
We must now check if at ground level it corresponds with the place in the movie. Let’s use İstanbul Şehir Haritası as it is the only map service that has a street view panorama of the square itself.
We only have one problem, it looks like this is the place where the scene was shot, but where is Uğur’s building and the empty lot on the corner?!
We know this panorama was taken in 2014, at least 8 years after the movie was shot so a lot could have changed. Therefore, to be entirely sure, we must use historic satellite image. For this we can use a plethora of sites and tools. I will use Google Earth because you can use this for almost any place. The İstanbul Şehir Haritası historical satellite images are better in my opinion but work only for Istanbul.
In short, it seems like a lot changed. Uğur’s building ceased to exist some time in 2013, it would be cool if we could confirm that little building in the top left of the image was indeed Uğur’s building, though from above it does look like it. Fortunately Yandex now allows us to toggle between their old panoramas and their new ones. They didn’t make a panorama of the front of the building, but they did capture a panorama of the back in 2011. As such, they capture the building before it was demolished.
The text became pretty long and I have added many details that to some might seem superfluous. I hope, however, that it gives some insight on what thought processes you can use to narrow down a long and challenging task.
Sometimes you can use a handy tool and perhaps there were many more efficient ways to get to the location, but in many cases we will face a situation where such tools won’t be able to help you much. In such cases what will help you most is patience and persistence, analytical thinking (I tried to describe this thought process as detailed as possible) and of course a good knowledge of where you can fetch the information you need.