Dec 08 2021

Difficulties in assessing online links

NetWatch are regularly instructed to conduct investigations in order to assess whether people or organisations are connected for a variety of reasons. For example, our clients will sometimes want to check that a supposedly independent witness is indeed as independent as they say they are, if a new hire is linked to any rival companies, or if the occupants of different vehicles are known to one another.

Previously, social media websites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were a lot more open, and allowed investigators to use several tools and tricks to automatically check for the links between certain individuals, both direct and indirect through mutual friends. Whilst some of these still exist, many have been removed.

For instance, a few years ago Facebook users were able to use a graph search function to automatically check to see if two users had any shared photographs together, any public comments to each other, and also the exact date on which they became friends. This was removed around two years ago.

The social network did still retain a function with which to automatically check whether two individual users shared any mutual friends on the site. This search required at least one of the users to have a public friends list. This too was recently disabled, meaning that the process to determine whether individuals share any mutual friendships on social media is required to be much more manual and time-consuming.

Fig 1. The now-defunct mutual friendship search on Facebook

On Instagram and Twitter, free online tools still exist with which to check the links between individuals, however our research has found that these can be unreliable. One such tool is ‘Helper Tools for Instagram’, which is a Google Chrome extension.

Fig 2. Helper Tools for Instagram Chrome Extension

Helper Tools for Instagram will allow users to check two separate public accounts for any mutual followers, using the search highlighted below:

Fig 3. Helper Tools for Instagram Chrome Extension in use

However, this automated process is relatively slow and clunky. This is because Instagram has recently taken strong steps to outlaw bot and automation services, and the tool itself is required to pause its searches every few minutes to avoid being flagged by Instagram’s anti-scraping checks.  The tool also charges users to search on any accounts that have more than a few hundred followers. Unfortunately, due to the automation issues outlined above, if an investigator was to pay to use the tool to check on accounts with more followers, the process would likely take hours.

At NetWatch we do not utilise free online tools like these because our research into the code base has often revealed that any information entered is being harvested and collated by those making the tools available. This is one of the key reasons we developed our own in-house tools and made them available to other industry professionals.

NetWatch Solutions

Here at NetWatch we have access to a range of databases, datasets, and tools unavailable to the average insurance claims handler that we built in house. This means that we can conduct in-depth online investigations that analyse the links between individuals, companies and other entities whilst saving our clients the time it would take to conduct these investigations themselves. In many cases we have been able to provide intelligence that helps to completely negate an insurance claim – even if it involves manually sifting through data to find the key pieces of information.

Linked via an Image – An Example

As an example, a client in a recent case instructed us to check whether a witness was known to a third party. We firstly consulted our directory databases to gain a picture of the residency situation of both individuals, their past addresses, and their current and past co-habitants. We then located social media accounts for these individuals and their co-habitants using our Profile Finder + tool. Investigations found that two co-habitants of the witness and the third party had been tagged in a photograph together on Instagram, showing that the co-habitants played football together, and that the witness and the third party were likely to be family friends. We also used another tool from our in-house Toolsuite software to confirm that one co-habitant of the third party had been selling items on classified ads from a previous address of the witness, again adding to the likelihood that there was a family friendship in-play.

Ultimately, because we have access to more data sources than just social media searches, our clients can be sure that our Linking Investigations are holistic and cover all available avenues. If instructed, clients can expect a comprehensive report that outlines any links between entities, and the nature of them. A linking chart which illustrates any links in a visual format is also provided. All our research can then be evidenced and presented in court if necessary.

If your organisation has a need to check whether any entities are linked, be it individuals, groups, or companies, then please get in touch with us using the contact form on our website, or using and we will be happy to assist.

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