Ben Strick, director of investigations for the Centre for Information Resilience and Myanmar Witness, joins David Biderman and Dominique Shelton Leipzig to share how his team uses investigative techniques to document and expose human rights violations, identify perpetrators and victims, and assist social justice groups from Myanmar to Cameroon and around the globe. He describes why this process serves as a way of holding a mirror to society and forcing us to take responsibility for the hate and violence in the world. Ben also explains how the open source investigative community deals with privacy and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation, particularly when using photographs.


Episode Transcript

Dominique:

Welcome everyone to Decrypted Unscripted. My name is Dominique Shelton Leipzig. This is the opportunity that my partner, David Biderman, and I have to really unpack what’s going in privacy and data security and data in general.

David:

We talk about privacy, data information in general. We cover everything from national security to mom and pops getting ransomware attacks. It’s just great to spend some time with Dominique talking about these issues.

Dominique:

Data is everything. If a company is not digital and they are not using technology and data, they’re really not a company in today’s world.

David:

Thank you all for listening.

Dominique:

Welcome everyone to Decrypted Unscripted. This is our opportunity to speak to our audience about what is important and the issues that matter in data. My name is Dominique Shelton Leipzig, and I do this podcast with my partner, David Biderman. And today, we are really thrilled to welcome our guest Ben Strick. And before I say something about him, David, I wondered if you wanted to say hello.

David:

Hey. Thanks so much for joining us, and we are very fortunate to have Ben join us. There was an article in the Financial Times about some of the work that Ben did in identifying crimes, human rights violations in Myanmar, and it’s an amazing work. And then it led us to basically understand how Ben uses digital forensics, open source. He’s an open source investigator, and we’ll talk about that, but thank you, Ben, for joining us and thank you for all the good work you’ve been doing.

Ben:

Thank you so much for having me.

Dominique:

We’re so thrilled to talk about your journey and how you have used your digital investigation skills to document human rights abuses. And tell us just a little bit about your background, and you, how did you come to find this as your area of focus?

Ben:

Yeah. Again, thanks for having me. And it’s really interesting that I’m on this show with you guys as well. So my background is in law, which is great fit for being here. So I studied law in Australia quite a few years ago, and I majored in corporate law, which is very far removed from any of this sort of work. So really, insolvency, international taxation. And when I graduated law, I had this turning point where I could either stay earning some good money in corporate law with a top tier firm, or I join the military. And so, I took a bit of an adventure, thinking I can be a lawyer anytime, but I can’t be young and in the army for too much of my life. So I joined the military. And I started off as a reservist and then went in full time.

Ben:

And during that process, I learned a lot about international conflicts, what happens in conflicts, the gray lines of war, especially about the damage that weapons can have and the damage of having a hidden intelligence environment, stopping that information getting out to the world and things like that.

Ben:

And that’s what really got me down this track of looking at human rights, especially around conflicts and how that can trickle out to Western democracies, what we see sometimes happening in the UK and the US and that vast expanse of tracking that.

Ben:

So obviously… And people call me an open-source investigator now. So it’s a self-appointed title in the community. It’s not really an official thing. There’s no registration for that. There’s no formal training for this, which is, I’m awful saying this, but it’s just a good way to start this premise, by just saying that the industry is so subjective, objective at the moment, in that it’s really about the work that you do and the work that you have done.

Ben:

There’s so many different backgrounds. So I say I’m a lawyer, but some people might say they’re a librarian, they’ve been an accountant, there’s former doctors that are now open source investigators. So it takes a lot of different strands to jump in there, but it seems to be this cooking pot of people that just really have that digital curiosity, to sift through a lot of information on the internet.

Ben:

But I should probably just say what I do for a living now. So my job title, which people do ask, is… So I’m a director of investigations for an NGO based out of the UK. And I’m a director of an organization called Myanmar Witness, which is what you would’ve read about in the Financial Times, where we document interferences with human rights to a judicial as possible level for things that you see on social media.

Dominique:

I was curious, so many questions about the work that you’re doing, but do you find that in documenting these human rights violations, that it’s holding a mirror for society to have accountability for these things? Are your documentaries and other evidence you’re pulling together, you think responsible for helping minimize some of the violence?

Ben:

There are a couple of limbs of actually doing this work that goes to show why it matters. So first of all, I think one of the most important ones and one of the most successful ones is around advocacy. And it’s about getting things into the media and getting things into the headlines. And for issues like this, if you think about it, 30, 40 years ago, a journalist would go on the ground and be a standard war journalist, and would be able to interview sources and take a video, and you would see it on CNN. This day and age, there’s things like internet shutdowns, misinformation, disinformation. People can’t trust what they get. And with that hurriedness online of footage being filmed by civilians rather than a CNN reporter, you’ve got 200 videos, where once upon a time, it used to be one.

Ben:

And so, journalists aren’t really trusting too much about what they get from these environments, because A, it’s either too much, it’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant, or B, it’s just too hard to really identify what actually happened on the ground. So these methods come into a lot of use in that sense. And it allows journalists to trust the information because it’s authentic, it’s reliable. And obviously, that then helps with judicial organizations, UN, independent fact finding missions that want to find out what actually happened on the ground. They can interview a lot of sources, but actually you could also view footage. You could have a look at satellite imagery and investigate soldiers when they post their selfies at the same locations and things like that online. So there’s a lot of different elements that come out to this work, that we’re obvious seeing a lot more of even this year.

David:

Yeah, just in very specifics, do you start with an incident and then say, “Listen, I’m going to investigate this incident,” or are you just roaming public information and seeing if you can find anything? How’s that work?

Ben:

I’m managing a group of about 15 investigators for Myanmar Witness. And it is a challenge to say to them, “Spend some time on social media, and try not to scroll too much on Twitter and Facebook before you find something to dive into, like a rabbit hole.” But often, there’s either a claim about an incident has happened, or there is a video that someone might come across that is a shocking event or something really bad has occurred. And then, that warrants a further investigation.

Ben:

And I can think of a perfect example of something we did a few years ago in Cameroon, when we were working with the BBC in an investigative unit within in the BBC. And it was this video that was circulated around online to hundreds and thousands of accounts, had a huge amount of retweets. And it was this video of these two women and their children being walked down this path. And it was a two to three minute video. And one of them had a young girl next to them. One of them had a baby on her back, and they’re being led down this path by these soldiers or these people in military uniforms.

Ben:

I won’t go too much into the detail, but they were blindfolded and executed and shot. And that was one single video. And obviously, people in the US were complaining about this. People in the UK were complaining about this. It wasn’t just Cameroon that was talking about this. This was an international issue in the social media feeds of people all around the world. So that was something that we investigated, and it just warranted that further investigation when the government said, “Actually, this is fake news. This footage is nonsense.”

Ben:

So I think that’s the biggest trick for us and the biggest warrant, or where there’s smoke, there’s fire, is when a video like that comes out or a claim like that comes out. And then the government says, “Hey, this didn’t happen.” And they try and squash that. That’s when we really start to sink into this and use those alternative finding methods, things that anyone can get their hands on, like Google Maps, finding a location with mountain ranges and things like that, that the government can do themselves and any independent investigative committee from the UN, ICC, anyone like that can actually follow up through and do that. And I think that’s the power of this stuff, is that transparency and that replicability by anyone else.

David:

Yeah. And in that instance, if that YouTube video is available for our listeners, it’s very, very showing. In that instance, you were able to identify and document that the event did occur in Cameroon. And yeah, I think you actually were able to identify the specific individuals involved. And maybe give us a little detail on that. That’s amazing.

Ben:

Easily, when they were filming the video, and this raises a whole heap of questions around the mental status of these people when they were doing this, but they were saying each other’s names as though they’re cheering them on. The narrator would say, “Here comes second class cobra,” which is a nickname is if they’re showing off in front of the camera. It’s that ego. So that helped.

Ben:

Obviously, cross-referencing their Facebook profiles with where they were, where their unit was at that time. There was a military base about 800 meters away that there were pictures posted at. Once we identified who these people were, verified that location, verified the time, and verified other things that the government denied, like the weapon systems that were being used that the government said weren’t being used, the uniforms as well. Eventually, they replicated their own investigation. There was an independent investigation carried out, and four of the soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison. So it’s an execution. Come on. It’s not the sort of justice you’d want, but there is some grain of truth in going to that extent and holding that government to account, to actually do something about what’s happened, which is super interesting.

Dominique:

Well, it’s incredible, the… I imagine that no prosecution whatsoever would’ve happened if you hadn’t been involved, in terms of bringing out the inconsistency.

Ben:

Yeah. As I said before, it’s that advocacy as well. Because obviously, that got hundreds of headlines, and it brought the issue of what had been happening over the past five years in Cameroon to light, about the military, about civilians, about the conflict there. The US was able to withdraw funding. There were sanctions identified. And that sort of thing just coming out of one single video, because people can trust it. It’s a grain of truth that they can rely on and use in their own vices to do something a little bit better for that area. There’s probably lots of videos that have come out of Cameroon like that, but that one just really hit the world and shifted the world on a little bit of dimension. And thankfully, with these independent, replicable techniques, we’re able to really show people that, yes, this is what happened, and hold those responsible to account in that sense.

David:

Yeah. And the techniques are basically you scour the open sources and try to develop ties and links. And is that a way I could describe it? I want to be careful and describe it correctly.

Ben:

Yeah. That’s the perfect way to describe it. It’s super relevant to what we are talking about today, about privacy, because this is about lurking on Facebook, studying the comments and the digital breadcrumbs people leave behind. It’s okay in this sense, right? Because we are looking at human rights abuses, but on the flip side, and we showed these techniques on a BBC video that has a million views or more than a million views on YouTube. That’s a little bit dangerous as well because it shows, perhaps, people like stalkers could also use these same techniques to find out where someone lives, or intelligence agencies of dictatorship governments can use these same techniques. So there’s a double-edged sword in this as well.

David:

It is a double-edged sword, but you’re on the right side of it, I guess it is-

Ben:

Hopefully.

David:

And in, I’m going to call it Burma because it’s easier to pronounce, that was a situation where you tracked an individual, is that correct? Or am I misremembering the article? I remember it started out with a statement about a little girl who disappeared, and it was just fascinating the way you were able to track everything down. You might want to just tell us a little bit about that.

Ben:

Yeah. It was a really interesting scenario that popped onto our feed, and we were actually helping a journalist for the Financial Times tell this story because you just didn’t have the data or the evidence to be able to work out what really happened. So it was a young protester called [Tu Tu Zin 00:14:08], and she was working in the beauty industry or cosmetics industry before the coup happened in Myanmar last year in February. And she was in Mandalay, which is one of the second biggest cities. It’s quite a popular city for tourists. She was in Mandalay in May when she was shot in the head with her friends. She was carrying a pro democracy banner. Quite interesting, the banner that she was holding up had a mocking jay from the Hunger Games, and she was holding up three fingers because this is what the pro democratic movement in Myanmar does, which is quite relatable for a lot of people that don’t know about Myanmar. And she was shot in the head doing that.

Ben:

The interesting thing is that her family didn’t have a body to bury because her body was taken away because the powers that would be don’t want that evidence to be shown out there. So we’re able to really answer some of the questions for that journalist, such as exactly when she was shot, what happened to her body after that event. Sand was thrown on the ground, security forces arrived at the scene straightaway and guarded the area so that no one could visit that scene.

Ben:

And yeah, there were a lot of interesting factors about that case, but we were really able to help that journalist get that out and really bring out that advocacy issue, just around one death in Myanmar, which really goes to show the level of extremities that a dictatorship government like that could really go towards.

David:

Yeah. It’s unbelievable. And again, so you’ll either hear about an incident, somebody will make a complaint, and if they make a complaint, they know to go to you? Or how do you learn about the complaint?

Ben:

There’s plenty of people that they can go to. I’m not the only one, thankfully, that’s doing this work. Yeah. But it raises an interesting question too, because at the start of this chat, I did mention that I’m not formally trained. I don’t hold an official title, so there’s no official office. You can’t knock on the door of the open source police and do this stuff.

Ben:

And if you think about that, if another viral video hops up where say someone is doing something wrong with a pet, and that pops on Facebook, you get other people that hopefully… I might inspire them to do good, but you get other people that might hop on saying, “Hey, I think it’s this person,” and they might link to their Facebook profile. And before you know it, an innocent person that might not have been involved whatsoever has been named. And we saw that in the January 6th protests as well, where people were being wrongly named, and they weren’t actually there. They had complete alibis, but open source investigators or sleuths were hopping on, saying, “That’s that guy at the Capitol.” And someone might’ve lost their job, but they weren’t even there. So yeah, again, it’s a double-edged sword, this world, and really goes into that issue about privacy and data.

Dominique:

That was going to be my follow-up question, do you… And especially in cases like that, where the wrong person is associated with some heinous act… And I know the work that you did in the Sudan, I want to come back to that. But what about those individuals? Obviously, this is out on social media and other places, this information is visible, but there’s a concept going on in California about… And we saw the right to be forgotten in Europe as well, about who has really the rights over the information that is posted, and for what purposes can that information be used. So all the different platforms have different terms and rules, but just from the standpoint of, from a privacy perspective, have you had any pushback on that front about using the images to associate individuals with a crime scene?

Ben:

For me, personally not because I work in mainly the human rights atmosphere, dealing with largely developing countries, where again, the democratic and legal atmosphere is completely different. But also, the people that I’m really looking at are what you would call A-grade level human rights abuses.

Ben:

But obviously, in libertarian countries, there’s a real big difference. In anti-vax rallies, for example, January 6th protests, you need to get rid of that photo of me. I took it down off Facebook, and you’ve kept it up. It’s my permission. Yeah. It’s a good question to think about. And it’s also, there’s so many different flip side or the other side of the coin ones. For example, the Hong Kong pro Democratic protestors, there was a website built where they were docked, essentially. So their faces were listed on there. Their addresses were listed on there, and journalists as well. Super similar to the January 6th stuff, that these people were on the side of democracy, essentially, championing democracy in the streets, and their addresses and parents and friends and all that was listed online.

Ben:

So it almost comes to a how far is too far question, but then also the ethics of someone like me, or which is anyone, but the ethics of an investigator to say, “Hey, how sure are you about these findings? Could you possibly test this in a judicial environment?” And I think that’s the work that we’re trying to get towards with Myanmar Witness, in that level of granular documentation, to try and see how that would eventually work as in an argument about admissibility in a courtroom or a judicial environment. That’s what we’re really going for here.

Dominique:

That level of support for the association with the criminal activity.

Ben:

Yeah.

David:

And, have you been doing some work on the January 6th, or just keeping an eye on how things are going?

Ben:

So we actually did it on January four, five, and six. [crosstalk 00:20:09].

David:

Did you really?

Ben:

We were running a small organization that was essentially working to assist journalists if there were any violent outbreaks or things like that. And it was super interesting to see it happen at the time. We were watching all these live streams, seeing people, thinking, “Oh my God, nothing’s going to happen.” And before you know it, we’re watching a live stream in the Capitol, while sitting there having a coffee at two o’clock in the morning for us, thinking, “What on earth is going here?”

Ben:

Obviously, after that event, we noticed that a lot of the footage that we were logging was getting removed completely, over and over again. Because as this became an issue in the media, people were like, “Oh, I need to backtrack there and delete this.” And I think that’s super interesting because we saw the call out for submissions of media footage, like, “Hey, does…” We saw the police put that out as well. Does anyone have any footage of what happened here? And it would be interesting to capture that activity, but yeah.

Dominique:

And just out of curiosity, so you’re getting live streams at two o’clock in the morning of activities on the Capitol and January 6th and everything associated with that. When those feeds come down, do you still have copies or is it-

Ben:

Yeah. It’s difficult to download a live stream as it’s being recorded. You’ve got two main things. So you’ve got, if it’s not on Facebook or YouTube anymore, it’s very difficult to get access to it unless it’s been saved from someone else. And then the other thing is, those January 6th and also the protests that were happening around the voting times as well, those demonstrations often had music in the background. I know you’ve had IP lawyers on here before, so you’d notice. And funnily enough, the biggest concern for most live streamers when they’re walking around political protests or things like that is, if you’ve got music playing, stay away from me. So they all huddle together, because otherwise their livestream gets chopped out. So the perfect way to really not be tracked at an event is just to walk around with a speaker with music playing, because all the live streams of YouTube and Facebook get knocked off.

Dominique:

And that’s the AI looking for the music related to the IP part for copyright reasons, to take down unauthorized, unlicensed music. So interesting how that works in this context.

David:

It’s funny, we’ve had a guest who her organization was interested in basically protecting young girls, mostly from sexual abuse. And they had a system where they would scour these horrible films and try to identify the victim and then somehow save the victim, but it’s a similar technique, isn’t it, that you’re using? And it also reminds me, which we’ve got to get a guest on this one too, Dominique, and maybe Ben, you can join, is all that DNA information that’s floating around that’s being used to identify criminals, which is the latest thing that we’re hearing about in terms of using data.

David:

But what you’re doing, let’s go back to what you’re doing it. For example, with January 6th, did someone say, “Listen,” the press say, “Hey listen, can you guys help us out?” Or did you just decide this is something where something bad can happen, and we ought to be there.

Ben:

It was a bit of both, really. It was just the idea of specific divisive tensions happening in society, where lots of people with very, very conflicting views, very much motivated… It was just a concern. And I think it would be… It was important for us at the time to think, “Okay, can we watch the entire of events to identify perhaps the individual that started this?” Because often time, it’s really a spark that starts to fire. And I think that was the idea that we really wanted to go through for that.

David:

Did it work? Do you think you identified some of the ring leaders?

Ben:

I think there were too many, to be honest.

David:

That’s right. Yeah. It did seem like it was spontaneously generated. Tell us about some other things you’re doing throughout the world because it’s just… Well, we’re seeing the rise, at least my perception is you’re seeing the rise in authoritarianism. It’s not like democracy is spreading more widely, it looks like it’s the opposite. And I just wanted to get your reaction to that and what you’re doing in terms of documenting the bad things that happen in those situations.

Ben:

Yeah. It’s a really good question. Obviously, we’re seeing a lot more conflicts, but we’re also, with the advent of obviously the internet technology, social media, we’re hearing about it a lot more, as well. If you have a look at… And I absolutely love the African continent for its size, its beauty. It’s so many different cultures, so many amazing countries, but Libya has been through a very, very long conflict. Sudan has had conflict raging in it, South Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria as well. Yes, we’re hearing more from journalists about information is… Internet blackouts and things like that. But the conflicts were happening before that as well. It’s only now more so that you can now penetrate far west Dafurian villages because you have local journalists with Facebook pages that go to a scene where a village has been burnt down through tribal ethnic conflict, and he will upload a 20 minute live stream and interview those people.

Ben:

And I think that’s the fascinating space for cultural enrichment, but it’s also the scary space because at the same time, other actors are watching that stuff. The states will be watching that, dictatorship intelligence agencies will be. So it’s good that we have that, but it’s bad in the same sense.

David:

What do you think in terms now of the controls on this information? Do you think there should be something changed, or you think it’s about right now? Because it can be used, as you say, in various countries by the bad guys to identify by people they want to take care of.

Ben:

Yeah. It’s such a hard question to answer because you’re also dealing with countries that, in a sense, because they’re not democratic countries, they don’t have the same or similar responsibilities as what the US or the UK or Australia or other Western countries would. So they’re able to work with, for example, mass data collection and analysis and propaganda campaigns that perhaps the UK and the US might not get away with. And if they did try it, I think we’d have a lot more journalists focusing on them here than what we would have in say Western Dafur or Myanmar or parts of Nigeria, for example, or Libya as well.

Ben:

And with the advent of technology coming out of say the UAE or say China, that is able to really collect a lot of that information on Facebook and turn it around for massive sentiment, like what one of your previous speakers would’ve spoken about, Martin, doing these domestic influence operations, obviously we’ll be seeing a lot more of that. So it’s a really tough one to answer, but I think that space is just rapidly developing and especially for dictatorship countries.

Dominique:

It’s amazing. And one of the things I think about so much is, and I’m sure you must think about this every day, Ben, is just what these images and the globalization of influence that we are all able to access around the globe, different types of content, for the good and for the not good, actually. And so, so many times I’m thinking about how do we have the recipients or the viewers digest this information without inspiring other criminals to take up arms and do the same, and also to inspire action to protect, I guess, those less… The most vulnerable in our global society.

Ben:

Yeah. Obviously, we want to… Me coming on here, I want to inspire people to pick up the keyboard and the mouse and go for it. But I think the biggest thing is maybe doing that with an ethical mindset.

Ben:

One of the biggest things about this industry is about how people are so transparent about their findings. And whether you are claiming that someone’s dog bit me, or whether a dictatorship state covered up a human rights abuse and actually committed a… You’ve got to be transparent. The proof has to be in the pudding, so that it can be tested by witnesses, it can be tested by any people that say, “Hey, I don’t think you’re right. Where’s the proof?”

Ben:

And in being transparent, in having that authenticity of work, it also shows the methods, and those methods can be picked up by bad actors at the same time. So whether it be a stalker wants to learn how to geolocate to find his ex-partner or something like that, he can easily look at the work that I’ve done around human rights abuses and say, “Hey, now I know how to use Google Maps to find someone’s location.”

Ben:

So I think that’s an important aspect is around that ethics. But yeah, obviously I want to inspire those people, and I have a YouTube channel where I teach this stuff for free to try and democratize these skills, so that journalists can, in these developing countries, can really access this information. But at the same time, perhaps people in the US or Australia or the UK that upload photos in a less cautious sense, know that what they’re uploading can be tracked, can be used against them, whether it’s a picture of your passport, whether it’s a picture of your photo of your driver’s license or your credit card, like, “Hey, I got a new credit card.” Or when people travel, and they post a picture of their flight ticket and their passport, saying, “Hey, we’re going on holidays.” Or where they might be doing yoga on their balcony and you can find where they live as well, just showing what’s available with a simple photo, I think is important.

Dominique:

Well, this will be great because we can put your YouTube channel in the show notes, so that our listeners can find it and learn. But so much of what you said is so important, just the many ways that people can be… What they’re posting can be tracked. And also the many ways that people can be inspired to take up the camera, take up their phone, and perhaps document something that’s really important for our global society about how we’re going to treat each other.

Dominique:

And I remember the coverage of the Sudanese civil war, and so much of that was from the type of journalism that you’re talking about, this investigative, grassroots work to identify some of the atrocities.

Dominique:

So how much do you work directly with the UN? You talked about having things to a, I guess, legal or judicial level. Do you work closely with human rights lawyers in the [Hague 00:31:30] and others that are prosecuting war crimes?

Ben:

Yeah. So at the moment, we’ve been collecting data on Myanmar in a way that’s been approved or has been looked at and given the thumbs up by independent fact-finding committees, which feed that information into the UN. We obviously feed a lot of reporting into the UN as well.

Ben:

I think in this space, and coming from the journalism background where it’s gather the video, prove it’s authentic, and then that’s it, but that’s not enough, I think, for a judicial atmosphere. And when I say judicial atmosphere, none of this has really been proven in Western courtrooms. So there was a mock admissibility hearing that’s actually on a two-part series on YouTube that was held in, I think it was March or May last year, where a group of QCs essentially got together to test out the open source admissibility. It was with the Global Legal Action Network around Yemen and an airstrike that happened. And it was around testing that admissibility of footage that might have been uploaded to Twitter.

Ben:

And it just brought up so many questions that, for myself, I’ve never thought of as an investigator. So for example, credibility. I’ve said that I don’t have any formal training. I’m not formally… Yeah, sure, I won the champion of the year in open source last year [crosstalk 00:32:57]

David:

Congratulation, by the way.

Ben:

Thank you. But I’m not a registered open source practitioner. And yet, if you call in an expert into a courtroom, you’ve got to prove that they’re an expert. Same thing about bias of search terms. We’re constantly looking on YouTube, typing in certain things. Does that search algorithm train our bias and give us certain results that might affect the evidence that we collect and the information that we collect? Same as Google with its search recommendations.

Ben:

So there’s so many different things in this legal atmosphere that haven’t been actually tested yet, and there’s no blueprint for that. And I think that’s one thing that we’re really trying to work towards with that, to really build a way or a package that we can try and collect this stuff properly. So that in five, 10, or 15 years-time, it can be used in a courtroom environment and actually be relied upon as unbiased, authentic evidence with providence.

Dominique:

Wow. I don’t know about the Hague, but David, in litigation, for establishing experts in the US, you just have to lay that foundation. Do they have to be a certified person, just having a lot of experience?

David:

Yeah, it is an interesting question because how do you establish the authenticity of some of the images, particularly in this day and age? And then I guess what you’re talking about too, is there might just be some in inherent bias in the way the images are collected and selected. I’ve never tried to introduce anything, an image from the internet into evidence. Basically, the law is pretty easy in state court in California. Basically, you just get somebody to say, “This is a true and accurate image of what happened.”

David:

But that’s right. You need a witness to be able to say this is what happened. Yeah. And you can’t say, “Oh, I saw this on the internet.” I think you have to have someone who can say, “Yeah, I was there, and this happened,” or something similar to at least authenticate the image.

David:

So that’s a good question. But we know it happened. That’s the scary thing. In general, I mean the shootings, et cetera. Just it’s unbelievable. The range that you’ve done. Literally, I’ve done a little bit of homework here, but listen to this history here. Ben is known for investigating Cameroonian executions, we talked about that, taking down influence operations, targeting human rights. What’s that? That was…

Ben:

Yeah, that was an interesting one coming out of Indonesia, actually. There was basically an independence movement that is in West Papua, they don’t want to be controlled by Indonesia anymore. And at the time, it was a few years ago in August, the internet was cut off. And all you could find on Twitter was these videos about the amazing work that Indonesia was doing in West Papua with these very pro-government looking advertisements. And all of the accounts that were uploading this were white faces, Western names, with James and John. Image reverse searching some of these, looking for those faces, found them in stock photos from Kansas, from Ohio, from Mississippi. And we were like, “What is going on?” And they’re all using the exact same text, “Look at the amazing work Indonesia is doing,” all with using these hashtags, West Papua genocide, West Papua human rights, essentially really covering that.

Ben:

We, we tracked the activity back to a digital marketing firm operating out of Jakarta, which was quite interesting just through having a look at the employees, having a look at the linked websites and linked accounts and phone numbers. This whole thing that we’ve been speaking about over the past hour is just scary, when you think about that level of activity, bringing in marketing and pushing that information online into the feeds of people like us, who we rely on this for judicial purposes, for advocacy purposes. And here we are, we have marketing firms trying to push this into our line of work as well. It’s annoying.

David:

So they buy the search terms on torture in Indonesia, and you type in torture in Indonesia, it comes up with Indonesia’s a wonderful place. They’ve got great internet, [crosstalk 00:37:22] and a great place to vacation. Oh, that’s scary. Were you able to get it stopped?

Ben:

Twitter took down 720 accounts.

David:

Wow.

Ben:

Facebook took down a huge network of accounts. They found that these accounts spent more than 300,000 US dollars in advertising on Facebook as well. So great to see that that stopped. It’s interesting that people, again like me, I’m not a coder. I’m not great at identifying. I’m not like Martin [Ninez 00:37:50] who has PhD in this stuff, but it’s amazing that the platforms really able to catch onto this a little bit quicker, but it’s good that there’s people, a community of us out there watching as well.

David:

Yeah, it is good. All right. So I got to ask one more thing. This is cool, Dominique. You may not know this. Remember John McAfee? Isn’t he the guy that came up with that security program [crosstalk 00:38:13].

Dominique:

Protection. Yeah.

David:

Yeah. And everything was named after him, and he lived in Santa Monica. But anyway, but it says in your bio that you were responsible helping find him? Because I know he did something really wacky and-

Dominique:

He went off grid. I remember.

David:

Yeah. But what happened? You got to tell us, man.

Ben:

He was traveling from Munich to London, and he posted a picture of him and his eight big macho security guards, saying, “I’m on my way to London.” No one knew where he was coming from, but “on my way to London, and I’ll buy a beer for anyone who can tell me where I am.” And so I’m like, “Oh, game on here.” So I basically stalked his profile, found the hotel where he was and had a look. It was in a petrol station as well. I could see the branding of the petrol station. So I had to look at every single petrol station on that route and found him. Didn’t get my beer, sadly. I’m obviously not going to get that anytime soon. But yeah, quite an interesting person.

David:

Oh, that’s fascinating. All right. Well, if we’re in London, and we will be in London, Dominique and I are going to go, we will buy you a beer, I promise you. [crosstalk 00:39:23]

Ben:

I’ll watch your selfies in front of the Big Ben.

David:

And I got to go back to your history too, though. So you’re working at a corporate law firm, and suddenly you decide… Well, you joined the military, and then you come out of the military. Do you go back and work in a corporate law firm? Or are you done with being corporate lawyer?

Ben:

No, I was taken pretty much for the human rights angle, and I thought either I go into human rights law or I give this a go. And I thought, “Let’s give this a crack. There seem to be some things out there that I could probably work on,” and I just dived into it, and yeah, fell hard for this work.

David:

Wow. Was there an established community of open source investigators back then?

Ben:

Yeah, it was pretty small. So it’s called Bellingcat, so I was a Bellingcat contributor. And yeah, that’s a very warm and welcoming community, and it’s a blog as well. They have a podcast. Don’t worry, it’s not in competition with you guys. Yeah. It’s a really awesome community that I was able to join and start off with, and really pick up things from there.

David:

Wow. And you’ve got 15 people working for it. That’s amazing. And I take it they can all work remotely, right? Because you’re all online.

Ben:

Oh, that’s yeah. Please don’t… I’m not the owner of Bellingcat. No, I don’t work with Bellingcat anymore.

David:

Oh yeah. [crosstalk 00:40:47].

Ben:

I’m just a contributor, a volunteer with them.

David:

Oh no, I was… Yeah. But in your job, director of investigations, you’ve got people working for you, right?

Ben:

Yeah. Yeah. So we, for Myanmar Witness, we’re training up people from Myanmar, so they don’t live there anymore. Yeah, so they’re learning open source, and we also team them up with international experts as well, to really get that knowledge around, so that it’s not just a group of people from the UK and the US and in the EU doing this stuff, but actually, it’s people in the country doing this. I think that’s one of my biggest ambitions for the future is to work with groups in Sudan, in Nigeria, in Cameroon, and in Myanmar, to get those skills in the country.

David:

Oh, that’s cool. Have you traveled to all those areas, or are you able to do it all just virtually?

Ben:

I’m not able to travel to most of them. I don’t think the people at those governments would be too happy with me being in their country, but I’ve traveled to, let’s just say neighboring countries.

David:

Ah, that’s really cool.

Dominique:

Well, this work, when you look at it, it would’ve been unfathomable before the internet and social media and all of the things that we now have access to. So it’s great to see that there’s somebody such as yourself out there, going through those archives and putting them to good use to help protect our society. We’re wishing you a lot of luck in your endeavor.

Ben:

Thank you.

David:

Yeah. Thank you for everything you’ve done. It’s really amazing. It’s astonishing, and you’ve saved lives, and you’ve held people accountable. So, we really thank you for that. And we thank you for joining us for this time. It’s just wonderful for you to do it, and just keep up the good work, my friend. We love you.

Ben:

No, you also. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast. You’re doing an awesome job running this. I’ve loved some of the past episodes. It’s really cool. I’m looking forward to seeing who comes on in the future.

David:

Okay. We’ve got some surprises. All right.

Dominique:

Well, thank you.

David:

Good to see you.

Ben:

All right. Cheers, guys.

David:

Yeah. Cheers to you.

Dominique:

Bye-bye.

Dominique:

Thank you for listening to Decrypted Unscripted, a podcast by David Biderman and Dominique Shelton Leipzig.

David:

If you’re enjoying the show, please rate, review, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Dominique:

To learn about the podcast, you can also go to our website.

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Photo of David T. Biderman David T. Biderman

David Biderman, a partner in Perkins Coie’s San Francisco and Los Angeles offices, focuses his practice on mass tort litigation and consumer class actions. He heads the firm’s Mass Tort and Consumer Litigation group. He has represented a wide variety of companies in…

David Biderman, a partner in Perkins Coie’s San Francisco and Los Angeles offices, focuses his practice on mass tort litigation and consumer class actions. He heads the firm’s Mass Tort and Consumer Litigation group. He has represented a wide variety of companies in state and federal courts in California for 30 years.

On consumer class actions, David represents packaged food companies, coffee companies, dairy companies, footwear companies and others whose nutritional or health claims have been challenged. He also has represented search engines and other online companies. He has a record of favorable results for clients. He successfully tried a major consumer fraud class action on behalf of one of the world’s major search engines in a case involving online gambling advertisements. For that same client, he negotiated a favorable settlement of a class action challenging its online advertising pricing. He represented a major coffee retailer in defeating a class action on standing grounds. He also has litigated pre-emption defenses arising out of food labeling and obtained a dismissal for a client whose nutritional statements were challenged.

For fifteen years, David managed the firm’s full-service product liability team responsible for defending over 1,000 toxic tort cases pending in Los Angeles and Northern California state courts. These cases entailed ongoing trial activity at various levels for several trials set each month. The highly experienced and well-coordinated team has handled thousands of asbestos toxic tort cases for a variety of clients, including FORTUNE 500 companies from such industries as consumer products, aerospace manufacturing, household goods, dry cleaning and industries that generate electromagnetic fields, such as electric utilities and operators of wireless communications systems.