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Protection of Assets: Online Information Sources for Investigations

This is an excerpt from the revised Protection of Assets (POA) Investigations volume from ASIS International. Learn more about the POA here.

The core of any investigation is information. Anything that significantly improves the speed and efficiency of information gathering, collation, analysis, or organization is an important force multiplier.

The Internet can be a powerful force multiplier for investigators. Effectively using online information sources in an investigation starts with a basic understanding of the structure of the Internet, what can and cannot be accessed, and how to evaluate the reliability of information found on the Web.

In the digital age, investigators must be even more vigilant when gathering intelligence from online sources because information—and often misinformation—is in no short supply. When used prudently and strategically, online information sources are undoubtedly a critical component of a thorough investigation.

Understanding the Internet

To understand how to best locate and leverage sources of reliable information online, investigators must understand how the Internet is structured. The Internet can be conceptually understood as similar to an iceberg. The section of the iceberg above the water level—the tip of the iceberg—is visible to all. This is known as the “surface Web” or “clear Web,” containing everything one can theoretically find publicly on the Internet through basic searching, such as news, shopping, company and government websites, and some social media. The surface Web is the only layer accessible to search engines such as Google. Although there are billions of websites in the surface web, they amount to only about 4 percent of the entire Internet.

Like an iceberg, the vast majority of the Internet’s substance lies beneath the surface. This underwater section, known as the “deep Web,” amounts to more than 93 percent of all content on the Internet, consisting of information typically found behind a website’s login page or within an internal database. These sites are not indexed by search engines because they are not meant to be public facing. This does not necessarily mean that they are dangerous, however. Online databases, social media exchanges, internal company websites, financial records, research catalogues, and file storage are all part of the deep web. This content is still on the Internet, but not discoverable by Google searching.

“Like an iceberg, the vast majority of the Internet’s substance lies beneath the surface.”

Finally, the “Dark Web” is an intentionally hidden network of websites typically used for anonymous and often dangerous and illegal activities. Drug trafficking, weapons sales, and other illicit exchanges make up the majority of Dark Web activity. The Dark Web is also used by some to bypass restrictions on free speech in certain countries. The dark web can be accessed only through special browsers, such as Tor, and comprises about 3 percent of all Internet content.

Knowing how the Internet is structured will allow investigators to better understand where and how to find information and use resources to their fullest capability. While search engines may be a useful starting point, the true value of online information comes from understanding and utilizing what is beneath the surface.

Sources for Online Information and Research

Online information and digital resources have changed the nature of investigations dramatically in recent years. What used to take days or weeks to obtain can now be completed online in minutes. Whether searching for public records, court dockets, or corporate filings, online resources allow investigators to collect more intelligence in less time. Additionally, the widespread use of social media now allows investigators a closer and more personal glimpse into the lives of their targets.

The following subsections briefly describe some of the information that can be obtained through online resources. Note that this is not an exhaustive list of all possible sources of online intelligence, but rather a general overview of the most frequently sought information by investigators and online researchers.

Public Records Databases

Public records databases are some of the most popular and frequently used sources of information online. Public records may include criminal and civil court records, property and land records, tax liens, judgments, and other information that sheds light on a particular individual or entity. For many investigators, one of the key steps in an investigation is to determine the criminal history of a subject.

Luckily, many jurisdictions provide online access to certain public records, such as criminal court cases. Depending on the location of the subject, investigators can search state, county, city, and municipal court records for any cases involving an individual. Results vary widely by specific court and jurisdiction, and not all courts provide case details online. For U.S. federal court cases, the U.S. government provides Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), which can be used to search millions of federal criminal, civil, and bankruptcy court cases.

Investigators can also find property and land records, tax liens, and civil judgments through local county assessors’ and recorders’ offices. Like courts, many county governments provide online search functions through their websites to find property and lien records for an individual.

The key to effectively using public records databases in an investigation is to understand which agencies are responsible for maintaining certain records and how much, if any, online access they provide to the public. Investigators should familiarize themselves with the relevant government websites in order to conduct thorough research.

Regulatory Databases

When investigating individuals and companies, regulatory agencies can provide an immense amount of valuable intelligence. Searching for and locating any regulatory enforcement actions against a person or company can shed light on a target’s personal and professional conduct and is an essential step in the due diligence process. Below are just some of the agencies and regulatory bodies that provide some level of online access to regulatory actions, investigations, and other informational databases in the United States. Other countries will have similar bodies that can be useful in an investigation.

  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC): Search for securities violations.
  • Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC): Search for economic sanctions.
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC): Search for legal and enforcement actions.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Search for environmental violations.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): Search for worksite violations.
  • Federal Election Commission (FEC): Search for political campaign contributions.
  • Secretary of State or State Corporations Division: Search for corporate filings and business registration records in each state.
  • State Licensing Boards: Search for professional and occupational licenses and disciplinary actions.

Online News and Media

Online news and media sources can be valuable for investigators seeking details beyond what public records provide. Court records do not always offer the full narrative of an incident. News sources, particularly local news outlets, often cover local significant stories and provide statements from witnesses and details regarding the nature of an incident.

Investigators should familiarize themselves with local and regional news outlets in the area of interest to their investigation. Whether investigating a criminal offense, a workplace incident, or a company’s reputation, online news and media sources can offer a more robust picture of a target.

Library Resources and Online Archival Research

A library card is one of the most versatile tools an investigator can have. Many local public libraries also provide access to countless online and digital research resources. One of the most valuable library resources for investigators is the ability to search archival news sources.

“A library card is one of the most versatile tools an investigator can have.”

When investigating a person or entity online, search results may show news and media references only from recent years. Investigators seeking information from earlier time periods, or from sources only available in print, may find digital library access hugely beneficial.

Many libraries offer free online access to digitized print media and newspaper sources, which can be searched for key terms and information relevant to an investigation.

Some researchers and investigators specialize in online historical news and archival research. The Association of Independent Information Professionals is one such organization of members who are experts in research and information retrieval.  

Social Media

Social media is an integral component of our everyday lives. Social networking is how we communicate, find jobs, express ideas, and share our lives with the world. Billions of social media interactions occur daily. When understood and collected properly, all of this digital interaction can be a goldmine for investigators.

Nearly every investigation can benefit from using some aspect of social media as a source of information online. Whether investigating an individual, company, incident, or other entity or activity, social media sites contain insights and intelligence that simply cannot be found elsewhere. When public records, databases, and news articles only provide limited information, examining and analyzing an individual’s social media footprint can help investigators develop an additional dimensional perspective on their targets.

Facebook remains one of the top social networking platforms used by U.S. adults, with nearly 70 percent of American adults using the service. Four out of five Americans use at least one social media platform, and the average American has more than eight social media accounts. Stopping an investigation after a brief Facebook search may be missing a wealth of additional intelligence and information.

Below are a few additional popular social media and social networking sites used by people worldwide, according to Pew Research and Statista:

  • Facebook: 7 billion monthly active users worldwide; used by nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults.
  • Twitter: 353 million monthly active users worldwide; used by approximately 22 percent of U.S. adults.
  • Instagram: 2 billion monthly active users worldwide; used by approximately 37 percent of U.S. adults.
  • LinkedIn: 700 million users worldwide; used by approximately 27percent of U.S. adults.
  • YouTube: 2 billion monthly active users worldwide; used by approximately 73 percent of U.S. adults.

Social media has become such a critical part of investigations in recent years that many firms have begun specializing in online and social media investigations. Understanding the various audiences, features, privacy settings, configurations, benefits, and drawbacks to the many different social media platforms and services is a constantly evolving skill for investigators.

As with most technology, techniques and methodologies for investigations and intelligence collection on social media platforms are always changing and evolving.

“Social media sites contain insights and intelligence that simply cannot be found elsewhere.”

Search Engines

Search engines offer a way for investigators to conduct a broad search of their target using specific keywords and search terms. Search engines may include Google, Bing, Yahoo, and others. While by no means authoritative, search engines do offer a way to identify and locate information beyond public records databases and news. Search engines often turn up information from company websites, newsletters, event announcements, and other sources that investigators may not have thought to consider.

Search engines are also a way for investigators to quickly assess the volume of information that may pertain to a target when initiating an investigation.

Investigators should be mindful that search engine results are based on an enormously complex mix of algorithms, configurations, advertising, and optimizations so that certain pages rank higher in results than others.

Search engine results are also affected by the physical location of the searcher. Investigators should be diligent regarding search engine results and evaluate findings carefully.

Commercial and Subscription-Based Databases

Licensed professional investigators are allowed access to numerous commercial and subscription-based databases that are essential for effective investigations. These databases are not generally available to the public due to the sensitive information they contain, as well as laws regulating their use.

These databases are often used for obtaining baseline information on a subject, providing summary details where such information is readily collected by the data providers. Databases are by no means exhaustive or complete, but they do provide investigators with valuable intelligence not typically found through search engines or other means. Some commercial and subscription-based databases for investigators include but are not limited to TLOxp, idiCORE, Tracers, IRB, Delvepoint, and LexisNexis.

Cautions and Considerations

While online information sources can provide crucial intelligence to investigators, as well as reduce time and costs in an investigation, there are several points to consider when conducting an online investigation.

First, not all information is available online. As mentioned earlier regarding public records and court cases, not all jurisdictions provide online access to documents and records. In numerous jurisdictions, records can be obtained only at the physical courthouse location or through a clerk’s office. Additionally, any information found in online databases should be verified by inspecting additional records and documentation.

Secondly, online research and investigations can quickly lead to information overload. Online and social media investigations can be time-consuming and labor-intensive because they require a keen eye and technical skill to execute efficiently. Investigators should develop a plan, checklist, or outline for keeping track of what information is relevant to their investigation and what resources are to be searched.

Investigators must also carefully evaluate the reliability and accuracy of information found online. Errors do occur, even in official public databases and court records. Investigators should corroborate sources and seek additional records and documentation where available. Additionally, consider what is not included in a database or record that may be relevant to seek out. Lastly, investigators should be mindful of any bias in their analysis and carefully evaluate the potential biases of any sources, especially on social media.

“Errors do occur, even in official public databases and court records.”

Finally, because online information sources can be vast and require special skill sets in online and social media investigative techniques and methodologies, many investigators and firms have appropriated budgets to ongoing professional development and training in these areas. In other instances, firms have found it more economical to partner with investigative firms that specialize in enhanced online and social media investigations to supplement their investigative work.

Tools, techniques, and tactics for online and social media investigations are always changing, with the pace of technological innovations, new platforms, and privacy concerns by the public. Investigators should consider these options to enhance the value of their investigative products and services.

In general, intelligence unit managers should evaluate their research needs and determine the most mission- and cost-effective approach to meeting them. The proliferation of available information, ease of access, and budgetary considerations will often lead to greater use of online sources.

Edward J. Ajaeb is the founder and president of Nighthawk Strategies based in Washington, D.C. He is a licensed private investigator, social media intelligence analyst, author, speaker, and international expert on the topics of digital and social media investigations, background investigations, litigation support, and due diligence. 

The Protection of Assets (POA) books were updated, written, and edited by a team of security experts.