Why Primary Sources Matter

Hurray! German company data is now available in OpenCorporates! Does this mean I don’t have to pay for the official company register access anymore?

This morning I confronted my boss Christian with a fact that I had found on the internet yesterday evening. Although he claimed to be the director of his company, I could not find him on OpenCorporates. For those of you who do not know what this platform does: OpenCorporates is the largest open database of companies and company data in the world. The site claims to have over 160 million companies indexed. As of yesterday, they added 5 million German companies to their database. Should I believe Christian or OpenCorporates in this matter?

When I conduct due diligence and background checks, OpenCorporates is among one of the first platforms I use. As good as it is, OpenCorporates is still a secondary source and when it comes to reliable and present-day information, I rather choose to trust primary sources.

Don’t get me wrong, secondary sources such as the aforementioned or compliance tools like LexisNexis are amazing and are really helpful to get an overview of what you are dealing with, but they all have little flaws. In some cases, the data is not as up-to-date as it should be, in other cases they are lacking essential information, such as the company shareholders. The worst-case scenario is when data is falsely aggregated during the import-process, linking the wrong entities to each other. Throughout my investigations, I have stumbled upon these issues more than once when using secondary sources.

Based on yesterday’s import of the German company data into OpenCorporates, I decided to check my own employer: Corporate Trust, Business Risk & Crisis Management GmbH. This is what OpenCorporates provided:

sources

There are some flaws in this dataset, because I am sure Christain would love to see his name in here as well. After all he founded the company and has been the director of Corporate Trust ever since. This is not just a problem within OpenCorporates, I have seen similar issues quite often in expensive commercial compliance databases as well. As you can see, the dataset is also missing information on the company’s shareholders. Even when this information is contained in compliance databases, it is sometimes outdated.

These are the reasons I always try to use primary sources, such as official government company registers, whenever possible. OpenCorporates is a great starting point to tell me where to look for more detailed information, especially since it offers the possibility to search for individuals (something that many government company registers lack), but the official company registers provides the real intelligence. This is where things can get challenging. Let us have a look at the company register in Germany, our Handelsregister. It requires a formal registration, which is only available in German. No credit card payments are possible, only direct debit. For many countries, this alone may prove to be an obstacle. On the bright side, once you have access to this database, you will gain access to the original company documents, including a list of shareholders for private limited companies.

In other countries, you can only gain access to the national company registers if you are a resident of that country and in most cases against payment. Unfortunately, nothing in life is free (except the amazing British Companies House). So when it comes to obtaining all relevant and up-to-date data, a bit more is required than just the access to (free) secondary sources.

Just to be sure about Christian, I checked our company in the official German company register. Turns out he is listed as director in the Handelsregister after all.

Matthias Wilson / 06.02.2019

百度地图 – On China’s Streets with Baidu Maps

Different countries, different customs. It doesn’t always have to be Google. Today I’ll present a possibility to look at addresses in China.

Google Street View is a must-have from OSINT investigators nowadays. Especially when conducting Geolocation Verifications, this tool is a valuable asset. The overall coverage is getting better day by day and in larger cities, such as Paris and London, the Google Street View car has passed multiple times, allowing us to see changes over the years. Even in third world and emerging countries there might be a solid Street View coverage. This effortlessly enables us to have a look at a remote village in Slovakia in order to check an address which supposedly belongs to a large company.

Unfortunately, there are still many blind spots on the Google Street View map. This isn’t Google’s fault and mostly results from regulatory reasons and/or security policies in various countries.

In Germany, the main reason is the complicated relation between Germans and data privacy. Only a few major cities have Street View coverage from 2009 and lots of locations are pixeled. Germany is a digital developing country.

PNG 1Google Street View coverage for Germany compared with neighboring countries

China also does not have a Street View coverage (except Hong Kong). This has regulatory reasons. However, China wouldn’t be China, if they didn’t have a copy of Street Maps. The Chinese search tool Baidu also incorporates a map tool that has something similar to Street View called Total View. There is no complete coverage in this tool, only in the larger cities and economic centers. Investigators conducting a due diligence of new business partner in China can use Baidu Maps to verify addresses. If the address which is supposed to house a large business only shows a small newspaper kiosk, something might not be right.

PNG 2Baidu Total View coverage (blue shaded area) in and around Shanghai

The big challenge here is the language barrier. Baidu is in Chinese and the automatic translation of this site sometimes does not work properly, so we’ll have to copy and paste sections of the page to get proper translations.

You can acces the Baidu Maps by clicking on 地图 (this translates to ‘map’) at the top right of the Baidu landing page.

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In general, this tool is built like Google Maps. On the top left you’ll see the search field (red box). On the bottom right you can choose between the different view types: Street Map (green box), Satellite View (yellow box) and Total View (purple box).

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It is best to search with Chinese search terms when using Baido. So, if we want to search for the address of a Chinese company, we should look up the address in Chinese on the website of the company.

Let us take Volkswagen (China) Investment Co. Ltd. (大众汽车(中国)投资有限公司), for example. This company is a subsidiary of the German automotive group. On the company’s website www.vw.com.cn we’ll find the company name and address in Chinese, of course we have to use Google Translate to get this far.

After copying the Chinese address into the Baidu Maps search, we’ll receive a result. Now we can switch to the Total View mode and place the camera icon right in front of the address.

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Just like Google Street View, we now have to possibility to pitch and turn the camera, as well as zoomin in and out and ‘driving’ along the street. In our case, we can clearly see the Volkswagen building with its logo.

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It isn’t always this easy, sometimes you have to look around a bit on Baidu Total View to actually find what you’re looking for.

I hope this short and simple blog post can help you when using Baidu Total View. Just play around with the tool a bit to learn more. If you have any questions or remarks, feel free to use the comment section underneath this blog post.

Ingmar Heinrich / 03.12.2018

Interdisciplinary Intelligence Preparation of Operations – (I2PO)

Whether you are

  • a HUMINT case officer in military intelligence,
  • a detective in the police force,
  • a SIGINT analyst in an intelligence service,
  • an investigator supporting or conducting due diligence businesses cases,
  • or a journalist researching for a new article,

you should have extensive knowledge of OSINT techniques.

Now why should these roles, especially the HUMINTer or SIGINTer, be proficient at OSINT? The following article will explain a concept of work that I call ‘Interdisciplinary Intelligence Preparation of Operations’, I2PO in short. The basic idea is that every element working within an intelligence cycle requires OSINT knowledge to either prepare, enable, conduct or support operations. In the future, I will also make a point on how this concept easily transfers to business cases, such as due diligence checks, and journalism as well.

First, let us define what OSINT actually is. Open Source Intelligence is acquiring information from generally  accessible sources. This includes data found on the internet as well as within traditional print media, TV- and radio broadcasts. I tend to use the term ‘generally accessible’ as opposed to ‘publicly available’ or ‘openly accessible’, as the data is accessible, however, sometimes in closed networks, behind paywalls or not traceable without extensive knowledge of OSINT. This, in my opinion, rules out the use of ‘publicly’ or ‘openly’, which implies that everyone could access the data easily.

Another important aspect is the term ‘intelligence’ within OSINT. Merely collecting data is not OSINT. Connecting the dots, looking for missing links, assessing the data and producing customer driven reporting is what makes intelligence out of it. This requires knowledge, experience and instinct; a combination which is very hard to replicate using fully automated OSINT tools. Thus, the most important element of OSINT is the analyst, no matter how many software-based tools and gadgets he or she uses.

Before considering how OSINT should be used in combination with other intelligence collection types (ICT), I want to point out some of the advantages when working with OSINT. OSINT data is usually available the moment you start working on a case and often published in near- or real-time, especially when following events on social media. Cases in which you work in a real-time environment, with changes occurring momentarily, bring us to the most important OSINT rule:

If you see it, save it!

You will never know if the data will still be there the next time you intend to look for it.

Depending on the case, you will also be dealing with mass data (or big data). This is where a certain degree of automation might be helpful, keeping in mind that the final assessment shouldn’t be performed solely by an AI. When speaking of quantity, you must consider the quality of the collected data as well. Especially in times like these, verifying information and filtering out disinformation is vital!

After years of work within government intelligence structures and working on business cases, I have therefore developed the concept of I2PO to define my work. This is also something I use as a theoretical basis in the OSINT and INTEL classes I teach. As mentioned before, the general idea is that many different jobs require OSINT skills in order to successfully achieve their goals. Therefore, I highly recommend an interdisciplinary approach. This means not only relying on one ICT, but also having an understanding on how OSINT can support HUMINT and SIGINT operations, police investigations and business cases and vice versa, just as well as OSINT provides information for decision makers as a standalone ICT.

In the following weeks, I will post examples of I2PO in different lines of work (e.g. SIGINT, HUMINT, police investigations, due diligence, journalism and more) to emphasize and further explain this concept.

To start out, I’ll describe I2PO when applied in a military intelligence environment supporting military operations.

I2PO to Support Military Operations

Military operations, such as the ongoing coalition missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, have heavily relied on intelligence collection through SIGINT and HUMINT in the past. These two ICTs demand a large amount of preparatory work and in times in which our adversaries are more cautious and OPSEC-aware, these two ICTs are hitting boundaries. HUMINT sources are having a harder time receiving information from core target networks and communications encryption is on the rise, creating new challenges for SIGINT. At the same time, the amount of information available through the extensive use of social media, even in the aforementioned crisis areas, is vastly growing on a daily basis. In Syria for example, information on troop movements or combat actions find its way across Twitter in near real-time.

In order for decision makers on the battlefield to react to situational changes in a timely manner, it is essential to have forward deployed intelligence elements able to conduct OSINT as it happens. In many cases, this work is done by special OSINT teams, many of them not even being in the actual combat zone. This will always lead to a time delay when disseminating information to the final intelligence customer and decision maker. As with tactical SIGINT or HUMINT, which are close to or in some cases organic to their intelligence customers, tactical OSINT is the answer. Sending a dedicated OSINT analyst forward to support operations is one solution. However, training existing intelligence personnel, enabling them to independently conduct OSINT on a case-by-case basis is another option. On these terms, the training would enable personnel to answer requests for information as they come in, rather than relaying these requests to another element, thus again resulting in a time delay.

This is what I understand as I2PO. Having an all-source analyst who is able to conduct OSINT research and to immediately verify the collected information when needed in time critical situations to support before, during and after military operations. In this example, two different skill sets (one being the all-source analytical expertise) being used in an interdisciplinary approach is the core factor of I2PO.

Matthias Wilson / 16.08.2018