Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: An Introduction

Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: An Introduction

[Sarah Zarmsky is an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre with a focus on the intersections between new and emerging technologies, human rights, and international criminal law. She is also a Visiting Scholar at the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.]

Open source investigations, as defined in the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations, are investigations that rely, in whole or in part, on publicly available information to conduct formal and systematic inquiries into alleged wrongdoing. Over recent years, open source investigations have become pivotal in collecting evidence to raise awareness of and pursue accountability for international crimes and violations of human rights. Their importance only continues to grow, especially in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine, in which photos and videos posted to social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have allowed civilian voices to be heard and helped human rights practitioners to identify potential war crimes. 

Though open source information acquired through such investigations is undoubtedly valuable to human rights efforts and international trials, the methods by which it is discovered, obtained, analysed, and eventually used as evidence are not without flaws. For example, bias may occur and influence open source investigations if adequate measures are not taken to offset it, and the availability of good quality satellite imagery (which is a critical tool for verifying the location of a photo or video) differs greatly depending on the region being examined. Further, factors such as the composition of investigation teams, who can afford to enter the field, and who owns platforms and satellite imagery can have implications for whose voices are heard (or unheard) during the OSINT process and through open source evidence. This symposium delves further into these issues and more, with a stellar line-up of pieces on a wide range of topics pertaining to fairness, equality, and diversity relating to open source investigations and digital open source evidence.  

Each day of the symposium will feature posts relating to a common theme. Today, we begin with a theme at the heart of the symposium—the lived experiences of marginalized voices working within the OSINT sphere. In a powerful essay, Billie Burton and June Bove discuss the experience of working in OSINT as trans individuals. This is followed by Eman El-Sherbiny, with a compelling piece addressing the challenges faced by open source practitioners in the Global South. 

On Tuesday, the pieces will focus on the practical issues faced by those who run and carry out open source investigations both on- and offline. Sylvanna Falcón, Alexa Koenig, Sofia Kooner and Jess Peake will draw from their experiences in founding and running open source investigations labs at different university campuses to discuss gaps in diversity in the field of practice, as well as opportunities for closing those gaps. Next, Michael Elsanadi will discuss the use of Twitter by OSINT practitioners and the concept of OSINT as a knowledge formation project, which requires us to understand the positionality of its prominent voices and their online presence. In the final post of the day, Raja Althaibani, Libby McAvoy, and Dalila Mujagic will provide a call to action, inviting the OSINT community to co-create an inclusive Community of Practice. 

On Wednesday, the pieces will be centred around where open source information comes from, and the ethical dimensions that come along with the sources and tools used in open source investigations. First, Raquel Vazquez Llorente will discuss the legal and ethical dimensions of collecting evidence from private groups. Following this, Cris van Eijk will discuss the colonial and imperial history of satellite imagery and how this affects (or should affect) how it is used by open source investigators today. To conclude the day, Kate Pundyk will explore the financial barriers to entering the OSINT sphere and how the cost of investigatory trainings and tools impacts the inclusivity of the field. 

On Thursday, the pieces will focus on the interactions between the public and private sectors in the OSINT field and the implications these interactions have for fairness, equality, and diversity. In a unique piece by Vidhya Ramalingam and Raquel Vazquez Llorente, the authors engage in a conversation about fairness in open source investigations, drawing upon their experiences as an international criminal lawyer and as a founder of a company developing innovative investigative techniques to counter online harms (respectively). Following this, Isabella Regan will explore the power dynamics between public and private sectors in relation to open source investigations of international crimes.

Last but not least, on Friday, the pieces will focus on procedural fairness when using open source evidence in UN investigations and at international courts. Ruwadzano Patience Makumbe and Edward Kahuthia Murimi will discuss whether open source investigators for Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict satisfied the standard of proof for UN investigations, and Sarah Zarmsky and Judy Mionki will conclude with a piece on the fair trial implications of using open source evidence at the International Criminal Court. 

Though these pieces cover an extremely diverse range of topics from many different voices, there are some key takeaways that they all have in common. On the one hand, it is clear that there are some clear diversity gaps in the OSINT field, whether this be due to how investigation teams are structured or staffed, the financial barriers to participation, or colonial histories affecting access to modern technologies. In addition, a lack of streamlined guidelines and imbalances in funding for different groups or organisations has led to gaps in equity and fairness, both in regard to open source investigations and to how open source evidence is used in international courts or other fact-finding mechanisms. However, on the other hand, there seems to be hope for addressing these challenges. While each piece pointed out an issue with fairness, equality, or diversity in the OSINT field, they all also provided some form of recommendation or solution for fixing the problem and expressed optimism for the future. The main goal of convening this symposium was to generate conversations, no matter how uncomfortable they may be, that could eventually lead to change in our field in the interests of inclusivity and the pursuit of justice. Though each post is compelling on its own, as a collective, the pieces are even more powerful and have certainly accomplished (if not surpassed) the goal and vision for this symposium. 

Thank you to all the contributors for their incredible submissions on such important issues that we, as open-source practitioners, lawyers, and/or academics, need to be aware of to improve the field for the better, and to my co-editors at Opinio Juris for their support. This is sure to be a great week full of awesome pieces—stay tuned! 

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