Jan 11 2022

Internet Sleuthing Gone Wrong – The Importance Of Correct Attribution

OSINT usage within criminal investigations has become more and more useful in recent years, however the wealth of information online has sometimes led to members of the public taking matters into their own hands. Hobbyist internet sleuths aren’t always successful, and some cases highlight why it’s extremely important to be sure you’re looking into the right person.

An internet sleuth is an individual who independently searches the internet for information, usually on a specific crime or missing person, and attempts to uncover information which may help solve the case. This can sometimes be useful and draw attention to a case to help it gain traction, and to encourage potential witnesses to come forward after seeing coverage online. Websites such as Websleuths.com[1], and the rise of true crime documentaries and podcasts have likely sparked an interest amongst the public, and inspired them to take investigative action independently.

Recently, an American content creator helped FBI agents locate the remains of Gabby Petito, by combing through her video footage and locating the vehicle of the deceased. After submitting her information to the police, Gabby’s remains were found near the van’s location in the video[2].

However, without correct attribution, independent researchers are unable to confirm the identity of individuals with complete certainty. In 2013, Sunil Tripathi was wrongly accused on Reddit of being involved in the Boston bombings despite being missing at the time, and images of him went viral referring to him as “Suspect 2”. Large news outlets such as The New York Post and NBC reported on the case, and included Sunil as a suspect. Reddit has since issued an apology for their subreddit named ‘Find Boston Bombers’, which they admitted helped to fuel an “online witch hunt”[3].

Similarly, in June 2020, an individual named Peter Weinberg was mistakenly identified in a viral video of a cyclist harming a child, due to an incorrect date being attached to an appeal for witnesses. Sleuths identified Mr Weinberg as the perpetrator due to a cycling activity recorded on his Strava account at the time of the incident, however on the correct date of the attack he was working from home. His home address was shared online, and Police had to patrol the area for his safety[4].

To avoid serious errors as referenced above being made, NetWatch ensure that all intelligence gathered is fully attributed to the subject of the investigation through a stringent process, and extensive efforts are always made to ensure that we find the correct individual. Sleuths are likely to bring emotional attachment into their own personal research, and lack both professional distance and responsibility for their actions. NetWatch ensure to present objective information for decision making purposes without personal opinion, maintaining professionalism at all times.

The consequences of reporting on an incorrect subject could constitute a data protection breach – with there potentially being no legitimate reason to have processed data on that individual. As such it is essential that anyone undertaking investigative work takes the attribution process seriously, and any professional investigator should be able to display an audit trail as to why they have connected an online persona to the case they are working on.

For more information on the work we do at NetWatch you can contact us on enquiries@netwatchglobal.com or through the contact form in the menu.


[1] https://www.websleuths.com/forums/

[2] https://www.joe.co.uk/life/accidental-footage-may-have-helped-fbi-find-body-in-gabby-petito-search-2-289872

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22263020

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-52978880

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