Ethical Considerations for Open-Source Investigations into International Crimes

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Alexa Koenig
Publication Date
February 26, 2024
Publication Type
Journal Article
Investigations Program, Open Source Investigations, Technology


Over the past decade, the field of digital open-source investigations has both expanded and matured. Open source investigations rely on information that anyone can access from the Internet, and have been increasingly deployed by legal investigators, human rights researchers, and journalists. The investigatory methods include Boolean searches; sourcing videos, photographs, and other data from social media; determining locations of events by comparing photos and videos to satellite images; mining the deep web for government records; determining time of day by analyzing shadows in photos; and more. In this essay, I argue that digital open-source investigators can (and should) rely on a three-step process when faced with an investigations-related dilemma: (1) identifying what the law says they can or cannot do according to their professional identity, intended purpose, and relevant jurisdiction; (2) soliciting guidance from their professional code of ethics (if they have one); and (3) weighing their options against the values of safety, accuracy, and dignity. Given space constraints and prior coverage of the first two steps, I focus here on step three. The values of safety, accuracy, and dignity arguably apply to all open-source investigations and investigators, regardless of jurisdiction or professional identity, and their application reflects a relatively novel attempt to help set ethics-based boundaries around investigation-related activities.