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tv   HAR Dtalk  BBC News  December 12, 2019 12:30am-1:00am GMT

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voters in the uk go to the polls later on thursday morning in the third general election in four years. voting begins at 7am — all parties say it's the most important election in decades. india has passed a controversial new law to fast track citizenship claims for immigrants — but not if they are muslim. critics say it turns muslims into second class citizens. and this story is trending on bbc.com: greta thunberg has been named time magazine's person of the year. it comes as she accused leaders at a un climate conference of avoiding real action on climate change. that's all. stay with bbc world news. now on bbc news, hardtalk‘s stephen sackur speaks
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to eliot higgins, founder of the open source investigations website bellingcat. welcome to hardtalk, with me, stephen sackur. what is the truth behind the shooting down of malaysia airlines flight mh17 or the poisoning of the former russian spy sergei skripal, or the recent assassination of a chechen rebel fighter in berlin. my guest today thinks he can piece together truths from the world wide web. he is eliot higgins, the founder of investigative website bellingcat. in an age beset by fake news, has he really found a way to distinguish fact from fiction?
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eliot higgins, welcome to hardtalk. i want to start if i may with a self—definition. would you describe yourself as a journalist or a data analyst or some sort of online detective? i like online detective. we do acts ofjournalism and some of the work we are doing but really, the way we work with bellingcat uses open source investigation on a whole range of topics that go beyond journalism. i find it very difficult to define what we do beyond saying we do investigations. do you have to be a specialist in terms of your use of the world wide web? do you need special
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analytical skills? not really. i'm completely personally self—taught, i have no background in any kind of investigational journalism and i slowly started piecing together tidbits from videos from syria at first. you have any training in anything? for example, we will talk about your different investigations. you've run detailed investigations into munitions, the kind of impacts they have, what you can tell from the impact site of various different shells and bombs. do you have any expertise in that? when i started seven years ago, i had no background or expertise in it but gradually over time, with syria, because i didn't speak arabic, all these videos from syria showing bombs and weapons being used, figuring out what they were. there was a lot of information
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online already about weapons. as i continue to publish stuff ijust kind of build my knowledge up on that. you built a body of knowledge and that's important but also, the underlying mindset that you brought to this. you set up bellingcat around 2014 but before that, you had your own blog site, brown moses, which was digging deep into stories that interested you in the news but i'm interested in a sense of mission that you might‘ve brought to this. did you have a sort of mission in mind? when i started, it was more frustration, content being shared from these conflict zones which was being ignored by the mainstream media. it was hard to verify, cases in the past when people had claimed to be sharing authentic
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information which turned out to be fake. one example was a blogger in damascus which turned out to be a white guy in america and they were very widely cited and it was embarrassing for the media organisations which cited that and i became interested in telling if something was authentic. i understand that and that is partly aboutjust curiosity and piecing things together but ijust wonder again if there is something deeper, whether, in a world which is increasingly polarised and we see liberalism challenged in many different ways by different strands of authoritarianism around the world, do you see yourself as a fighter for any sort of values and would liberalism be a part of it? i think it would be. when i started off i didn't really have those motivations but over time working with people in different countries, some of them in this conflict zone, seeing how misinformation was being shared and targeted personally, it really drove me towards that kind
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of area of seeing this is important work which can have real impact and positive effect on society and justice and accountability. if anything really came to sort of symbolise your breakthrough to national and international consciousness, it would be your work on the alleged chemical weapons attacks on syria, the first of which occurred in in 2013 but you continue to follow the story in later alleged attacks as well and it seems to me it's interesting to talk about that because we've already talked about your lack of specific expertise. you have come into conflict notjust with officials representing the government of syria which have accused you of peddling lies but also some academic experts for example in the united states, i'm thinking of theodore postel because he's written about your work, he is at mit, the massachusetts institute of technology and says the problem with the work you've done on evidence around these
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chemical attacks is, to quote him, eliot higgins has no scientific training, he knows no science and is not interested in learning any of the science. does that leave you feeling vulnerable? what we do with our work is when, we're looking currently into the chemical attack at duma and there's been a number of whistleblower lea ks about the opcw report on what we've done there... the organisation for the prohibition of chemical weapons. this has been used by people who claim that duma was a false flag to draw the us in. journalist seymour hersh has claimed unnamed sources within the former obama administration is pointing to this possibility that the americans had colluded in what went on. what we do then is as i mentioned earlier, a lot of people have
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expertise in these areas and we built this network of individuals who have expertise. we ask them. we have an article we are writing on this opcw duma report where we have chemical weapons experts working together to actually examine the whistleblower leaks and see if the criticisms are legitimate so whenever we feel we have a weakness, we reach out to the community that developed, and we can ask other people. because of your work, it brought you into conflict in a larger sense with the russian moscow agenda. russia is the biggest backer of president assad. you are essentially saying all of the evidence you have looked that, all the digging deep and the other data points suggest that this suggest that this was an attack launched by the syrian military.
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that is what moscow didn't want to hear. officials began to raise questions pretty early on about the credibility of bellingcat. is that why you made a specific decision to go after the russians? no. i think it's partly because of how investigations developed as a field because initially it was around conflict in syria with this community informed around it and then it was mhi7 in 2014 which had a russian element and because that leading to questions about russia's involvement in ukraine which already existed but because it's an open source community focused on the conflict in eastern ukraine which wouldn't have happened if mhi7 wasn't shot down, more and more stuff was discovered, it was a cornucopia of information. let's talk about the way in which you uncovered this stuff, much of it exists online and you talk about open source investigation and many might not
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understand what that means, you use all sorts of sources, from social media posts to pictures online to databases which you are able to access often quite surprisingly, but you find ways of accessing them without breaking the law. just explain to me what you see is the mechanics of open source investigation. it's really driven by two separate factors. the launch of things ike the iphone in 2007 onwards, a lot of people are more connected and you could share information and that led to the rise of apps like twitter and other social media sharing apps sorts of people sharing information about the world around them and in parallel, you had the development of technology like satellite imagery that you could use to cross reference social media posts so this is really where it all came from and then the arab spring acted as a catalyst for verifying information in conflict zones
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which was often inaccessible to people on the grounds of those were really kind of the driving factors but it's really about how much information people are sharing about themselves and how easy it is to access that if you know how to do it and it's not complicated. it's not complicated but it's terribly time—consuming because there is so much out there and you began literally in your bedroom in the english midlands using your own computer but i'm imagining now bellingcat because it has so many investigations must‘ve taken on a huge number of staff. it's not really huge. we expanded a lot in the last year and we went from six employees to 20 and we have a lot of volunteers but one thing that's important for bellingcat and makes it unique is the use of crowdsourcing because we have a large number of people who engage in social media, often we ask our audience, do you know where this photograph was taken. for example, in 2016, there was an isis social media
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campaign which basically asked their followers in europe to take a photograph of a paper with a hashtag. in some of these photographs you could see some of the background. in some of these photographs you could see some of the backgroundm was lurie but we could ask our audience can you work out photos we re audience can you work out photos were taken? audience can you work out photos were ta ken? literally audience can you work out photos were taken? literally within ten minutes sometimes people would say that they know that location. and then we can doublecheckjust by viewing the images and making sure we came to the right conclusion. but there can be a whole range of different investigations. just as they have increasingly made a lot of noise and headlines around the world, you have come under scrutiny as well. i asked about your expansion of operations. anna comes back to the russians who you have confronted in various different investigations, the russians seem to be convinced that you, in a very crude way, are a front for western intelligence agencies, particularly the united states and the uk. the
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russian foreign minister and other politicians in moscow have essentially accused you of being a front organisation. the best representation of this is when the russian ambassador to the uk in 2018, after our scribble investigation, gave a press conversation when he repeatedly said that we were part of the british deep establishment. and when the journalist asked for evidence of that he said, oh, we have a feeling. and it is all about what russia feels, not what they have evidence for. when you take money from, like for. when you take money from, like for example, the think tank in washington, we know that you take money, substantial sums from george soros and his open society organisation that has a commitment to fighting for liberal values around the world. so coming back to the early conversation about mission, the funding of bellingcat
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would suggest that you have a side. we do have a side of, kind of, liberalism, broadly speaking. also the fact and the truth. we write a lot about russia but we do write about other countries in the world and we have investigated us air strikes in syria that killed civilians, we investigated saudi airstrikes in yemen and have used that to submit evidence to the uk government over arms exports. so while we did have this focus on russia that was driven by how the field of open source investigation grew to know we can make choices about what we are investigating and look into what we are interested in investigated. of the top of my head, the most recent huge headlines you have made, one was your exhaustive investigation into the two characters were, the suspects filmed in the famous cctv footage of two
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men going to salisburyjust before the poisoning of the russian double agent. you did a lot of work on that and came back with two names of people who worked with the russian intelligence. even more recently, in the last few days, you have done a lot of exhaustive work into who was the assassin behind the killing of a chechen, former chechen fighter in a berlin park. again, you seem to be pointing the finger at a russian professional assassin who, it seems, may have had ties to the russian state. you say you are getting sick of pointing the finger at russia... it is more investigating them time and time again. the one thing... i mean, with the assassin staff, that is really interesting investigations. and we're doing it because we have practice at doing it. so saying we're not going to do it. so saying we're not going to do it because tired of russia... it is
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co nsta nt it because tired of russia... it is constant disinformation. it gets tiring and you sense academics and think tanks where everything is about russia stop every us election, that it was completely decided by russia. fox news has more influence on who won the us election than the russians did. is this the founder of bellingcat saying let's not demonise russia? sometimes there are elements of people who talk about russia who are com pletely people who talk about russia who are completely obsessed with the idea that russia is behind everything, but russia today is a massive influence so that changes everybody‘s mind and that is not really true. there is disinformation, there is propaganda, and that is all true, but i find it very tiring sometimes that people seem very tiring sometimes that people seem to think russia is behind everything. i just roll seem to think russia is behind everything. ijust roll my highs when it is another story that says
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russia must be behind this, because this information is uncomfortable to this information is uncomfortable to this government or something else. but given in particular the most specific and powerful evidence you produced, connected with the sergei skripal case, was to give a detailed background of these two gi you agents who had come to the united states to kill sergei skripal, one a doctor, another one a long time military and giu militant, do you not feel that having gone so public with that information, you yourself and your staff, some of whom work either in russia or around russia, you are in potentially very serious danger yourselves? this is absolutely something we focus on a lot. we have been targeted by cyber
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attacks, we have in 2015 and 2016 multiple attacks on our e—mail accounts, we had our website attacked. there is a digital side of it, there is a propaganda side we had all kinds of false information published about our work, but there is the physical security threat as well and that is something that is harder to mitigate, and is a concern for us, when our workshops are open to the public. i have had to cut down doing public events. have you had advice from people in policing to suggest that you should be very careful? there are combinations of things as well, it is notjust russian agents coming to assassinate me, it is also the online audience that are coming more extreme in their behaviour. we have had multiple death threat, a couple of my colleagues were sent a video where their photographs were put onto barrels and then shot with a
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shotgun because they were writing about the far—right. because we were getting death threats from multiple people, it is a concern for us. that must weigh heavy on you. notjust because you have got your own family, but you arguably are asking your staff to put themselves in grave danger. and we are always very open and honest with the staff to help them understand the risks they are taking. out russia researcher, for example, has worked in that part of the world for over 20 years so he has a very strong understanding of what the risks are. we do have a responsibility to all the people who work with us. it is notjust stuff, but also volunteers. some of the lead researchers on the russia work of volunteers, so we are constantly engaging with those issues and we have had to contact the police and security services in the past because we had real threats against
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us. because we had real threats against us. it seems like there is irony in your work, the countries that pride themselves on openness, freedom and democracy are in some ways harder to penetrate in terms of accessing sensitive information than a country like russia that you would assume guards information very carefully, but when it comes to things like, for example, details of passports and identities, you have managed to access them online and you claim you don't do it through illegal means, you do it through this open source and, this use of the internet in creative ways. is your conclusion that what we think of as the most open societies aren't thoroughly so? i think it is the difference between societies that are open on purpose and open by accident. with russia, the reason they are open because so much data has been leaked from individuals corrupt online. we have got dozens of databases that were lea ked got dozens of databases that were leaked online or they are the kind of databases that were sold to people that do background checks
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that have ended up somewhere else online. do you get them on the dark web? they are the result of illegal activity? not even the dark web, you can find some of them on torrent websites. things like company registration databases, websites. things like company registration data bases, local telephone directories that aren't usually public or car registrations. in one case we found a registration database in one case we found a registration data base and identified in one case we found a registration database and identified 305 individuals who had registered their car to the individuals who had registered their carto the giu individuals who had registered their car to the giu headquarters in st petersburg. when we saw that, we couldn't believe it. we thought this is completely absurd, but you learn because they don't expect this information to be leaked which is very useful for us because they don't take behaviours to cover up what they are doing. one thing that strikes me as that you paint yourselves to the public around the world as transparent and accountable form of information provision. but
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how do you know that you are not being played? how do you know that you are not being played ? how how do you know that you are not being played? how do you know that intelligence services, looking at what you do, now very adept at presenting information online in a way that you know you will pick up on and therefore planting useful information that he will then go and publicise? whenever we see a piece of information online, if we are sent anything, we look at multiple ways to verify it, that we are not just relying on one information objects, we are looking at the nexus at exist in. we are really hyper aware of this. we don't want to be played by intelligence agencies... do you think you have been in the past? i don't think so. and the information comes from sources online that are verified from multiple different sources stopping you look at the root of the convoy that went through russia and shot down mh 17. that went through russia and shot down mh17. that was filmed by more than a dozen people, because it is not just one than a dozen people, because it is notjust one video showing one convoy. it is multiple videos showing the same convoy, they are
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uploaded at the same time, and then with mh 17, uploaded at the same time, and then with mh17, when we talk about a launch site, we have people who are posting on social media about it stopping you look at the social media accounts and they have been around for years, posting about who they have met, what kind of shopping they have met, what kind of shopping they have met, what kind of shopping they have done, just day—to—day things. here is my final and very depressing thought. as people look at what bellingcat does, they can become even more sophisticated in their response, and we know now that technology allows for deep fake videos that look entirely authentic, could have your face saying things that you have never actually said, but created virtually online. equally, perhaps social media record, histories, can be faked in the future so that it seems that we will come to a point fairly soon, when nothing that one finds online can truly be taken as absolutely 100% genuine, and then, how can bellingcat operate? what we have
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discovered in the past when there have been attempts to make that kind of thing as there are still clues that you can find, and what ends up being the story is that somebody goes to the length of creating the fa ke goes to the length of creating the fake environment of information, and that in itself becomes the story, if you have gone to that much trouble, it would be an immense amount of effort... but what if you can't keep up effort... but what if you can't keep up with the fakers? i think that this kind of the challenge we have. defects are obviously a big issue, but currently it is not such an issue when it comes to being used as evidence but it is when you have this immediate social media reaction. you share something and people have seen it before you even start verifying at. but if you are using it as evidence, that is not so useful. fake has to come from somewhere copy it has to be adapted from an original audio. so we have to learn and adapt, and we are at the cutting—edge of how we do this work, but it is up to bellingcat... this is why we work with expert to keep that. elliott higgins, i thank
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you very much for coming on old school hardtalk. we have already had two deep areas of low pressure affecting the weather. this massive cloud is coming in for the day ahead, and we have got further lumps with those weather fronts laying across the atlantic to bring us some further spells of rain. it's notjust rain for the concern for the day ahead, as it comes into the cold we can see some hill snow as well.
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we've seen snow showers and thunderstorms which have continued in the north over the night and with those heavy showers, the potential is there to continue to wash the grit off the surfaces, so quite slick conditions. it could be quite icy further south — we have had a lot of damp weather and temperatures have forecast in the towns and cities to get to around freezing. it could be icy and frosty throughout this morning but already in the west we have seen that change. as this comes in across the moors and the welsh mountains there could be a smattering of snow, more likely across northern ireland and northern england into southern scotland. we could stay in the showery cold regime all day in northern scotland but it is going to feel quite raw as the clouds increasing all the time bringing this eastwards into that cold air and giving us snow over the hills in the north. it does eventually get a bit milder and summery as you can see through the afternoon when the sunshine returns but with it also some stronger winds, so these strong north—westerly winds will blow the rain away from southern areas,
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but it kind of hangs around in the north through the night and into friday, with showers rushing and on that north—westerly, so another cold—feeling day, but we're back to sunshine and showers for most on friday except as you can see northern and north—eastern parts of scotland with their persistent rain, hill snow too, and heavy showers elsewhere, some hail and thunder, temperatures perhaps doing a little better than the day ahead but feeling cold with that wind. that wind that will blow through friday night into saturday, significant snow is expected across the alpine regions, some really heavy when battering eastern europe, there are warnings out quite widely across parts of central and southern europe. turin expecting some snow on friday and we wouldn't like to rule out some across many alpine regions. here in the uk it is going to stay chilly, we will see further sunny spells and showers but it will often be quite windy
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especially in the south, there could be further bouts of rain and hill snow, not just necessarily in the north. as ever, the warnings are on the website.
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i'm rico hizon in singapore. the headlines: the debate begins on capitol hill over the articles of impeachment against president trump. the international court ofjustice is set to hear from gambia's lawyers that rohingya muslims still face an ongoing risk of genocide. i'm samantha simmonds in london. also in the programme: india passes a controversial new citizenship law which critics say turns muslims into second—class citizens. greta thunberg is named time magazine's person of the year, on the same day she accuses governments of avoiding real action

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