Legislative Update

A couple of recent legislative changes and initiatives will be of interest to due diligence and investigative researchers.

Amendments to PIPEDA

The Digital Privacy Act, recently passed by Parliament and soon to come into force, amends the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which applies to private sector organizations that collect, use, or disclose personal information in the course of commercial activities. As the Data Protection Report notes:

The revised PIPEDA will specifically permit the sharing of personal information without individuals’ consent in the context of due diligence for business transactions, such as M&A, a partial sale of assets or transfer upon insolvency, provided certain conditions are met by the parties to the transaction. Organizations engaging in these types of business transactions will need to ensure compliance with the statutory requirements that resemble those found in Alberta’s privacy legislation. For example, under the PIPEDA amendments, only information necessary to the transaction may be communicated pursuant to an undertaking to protect the information with appropriate security measures and to use it solely for purposes related to the transaction. If the transaction does not proceed, the information must be returned. Otherwise, it may only be used after completion of the transaction for the purposes for which it was originally collected and if certain conditions are met, including notice to the individuals concerned.

The updated legislation also gives organizations the ability to disclose personal information to other organizations for the purposes of investigating a breach of an agreement, or a contravention of a Canadian law, or in connection with detecting, preventing or suppressing fraud.

Limits to Ontario Police Record Checks

A proposed bill in Ontario will standardize and limit the kinds of information released in police record checks. Police would no longer be able to disclose mental health information and would only release non-conviction records, such as acquittals, in limited circumstances to potential employers and others in background checks.

Business Backgrounding and Due Diligence Resources

I had the pleasure and privilege of presenting a session last night on business backgrounding and due diligence resources and strategies to the special libraries community in Toronto. I really enjoyed the session, and there was a lively Q&A afterwards where I picked up some tips as well.

Here’s a checklist of resources I created to help guide researchers when conducting this kind of research. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it provides an overview of the resources typically used. Please let me know in the comments if you find it useful.

Business Background and Due Diligence Research Checklist (PDF)

Quick Tip Tuesday: Searching for Corporate Directors

Today’s quick tip is from a presentation I’ll be giving on May 14 on business backgrounding and due diligence research. If you’re an info pro in the Toronto area, please join me for what I hope will be an information-rich session. You can sign up here.

In Canada, corporations can be formed in all provinces and territories as well as federally. However, searching by director name is only possible for a federally registered corporation. You can use the site: command in Google on the Corporations Canada site, or use the Canadian Federal Corporations and Directors database in FPInfomart, though this latter resource is populated by the vendor and is not comprehensive.

Quick Tip Tuesday: International Investigative Research

For international due diligence and investigative research, I’ve found Investigative Dashboard to be a wonderful resource:

Investigative Dashboard (ID) has been developed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the world’s leading cross border investigative reporting organization. OCCRP designed Investigative Dashboard as a transnational collaborative effort to help journalists and civil society researchers expose organized crime and corruption around the world. It hosts three core tools: a crowd-sourced database of information and documents on persons of interest and their business connections, a worldwide list of online databases and business registries, and a research desk where journalists can go for help in sourcing hard to find information.

The collection of business registries and related databases is terrifically useful.

Searching the Past

Internet ArchiveThe Internet Archive has received a lot of attention recently, and if you haven’t read this New Yorker article, I urge you to do so. If you’re not already in love with the Internet Archive, you will be after reading that piece, as well as this one titled “Never Trust a Corporation to Do a Library’s Job.”

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is an indispensable tool for historians, journalists, and investigative researchers of all types. One handy tool that I use often is Memento Time Travel, which provides point-in-time searches on the Wayback Machine as well as a number of other online archives. It is also available as a Firefox and Chrome add-on.

Another useful tool for searching things as they appeared in the past is the sliding time scale for Google Maps’ Street View images. Once you have your target address showing in Street View, notice that there’s an information box at the upper-left corner that shows the address, city, and date of the image you are looking at. Click on the date and you’ll get a slider showing all the available images for that address, which can date back several years. When you click on the image from a previous time, you’ll not only get the target address as it appeared then, but you can rotate the view and see the surrounding area.

Given Google’s tendency to constantly change its offerings, who knows how long this feature will last (and that’s why we need non-profit organizations like the Internet Archive!), but for now, it’s a unique and handy historical search tool.

Photo source: Beatrice Murch, Flickr

Tips and Tricks for Finding Email Addresses

At signFor a recent project I had to scour the Internet for email addresses of corporate executives. You’d think this would be a relatively easy task. After all, work email addresses are public information, and executives have assistants to sort through and filter their communication so they’re not inundated. But I quickly discovered that email addresses are precious, hidden gems to be excavated via advanced methods.

I found some direct contact information through Hoover’s and through running simple searches in Google, but not as many as I’d hoped, so I revved up the search. First, I ran a search in Google and Bing using the following syntaxes:

Google: “*@companyname.com” OR “email * * companyname.com”
Bing: email NEAR:2 companyname.com

This brought up a few email addresses so I could see the pattern for that organization’s email addresses. Often press releases have the direct email addresses of the marketing or PR team lead.

Once I ferreted out the pattern, I ran a Google search with that pattern using the target individual’s name, to see if it appeared anywhere legitimate. I also tested the validity of the email address at MailTester.com or VerifyEmailAddress.org.

Unfortunately this method isn’t foolproof, as executive email addresses don’t always follow the format for the rest of the company’s employees. (To learn about how executives hide their email addresses, see this article.) But I was able to get 90% of the addresses this way. For the other 10%, I called the company’s switchboard and turned on the charm. In a couple of cases, I had to try different methods on different days, but I finally got what I needed.

Finally, for public companies, don’t neglect public filings as a source. I found some of my targets’ contact information this way.

Do you have any tips for locating hard-to-find email addresses? Please share them in the comments.

UK Investigative Research Resources

FreePint, an excellent site for research and information management resources, news, and reviews, runs a regular feature called “My Favourite Tipples,” usually written by a practitioner with expertise in a particular research niche. The latest post is by Neil Smith, a UK investigative researcher, who identifies a few indispensable tools for open source intelligence research and backgrounding individuals. The post, as well as his website, are well worth taking a look at, especially for UK sources.

Photo Fakery and the Challenge of Verification

Another week, another fake photo making the rounds in social media and raising outrage and/or hilarity. This time it is a photo of a gold toilet said to have belonged to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Problem is, the photo has been around since at least 2012, and while the Ukrainian president may indeed be guilty of accumulating outrageous luxuries, there’s no evidence that the gold toilet belongs to him or anyone else in Ukraine.

Earlier this month, a number of Sochi Olympics photos went viral that were also fake or not attributable to Sochi. And you may remember this photo of the Egyptian pyramids blanketed with snow (for the first time in 112 years!) making the rounds in December.

pyramid-snow-grabjpeg-2929283

Pretty cool looking, but guess what? Fake.*

Hoaxes, rumours, misinformation, and fake stories and images have long found a welcoming home on the Internet, but with the rise of social media they get shared and disseminated even more quickly than before, sometimes by people who should know better. Sometimes verifying a piece of information is as simple as checking snopes.com or doing a Google search. Other times, however, it may take a bit more work to dig under the surface and confirm the veracity of a story or photo. This Storyful article is a good start for learning about some ways to verify images, such as checking the Exif data and cross-referencing with other sources like satellite images.

Storyful and a number of other news and non-governmental organizations such as the BBC and Amnesty International have released a free ebook called The Verification Handbook to help with identifying rumour and misinformation. While the book is geared toward verifying user-generated content in disaster and emergency situations, the tools and guidelines presented provide an excellent resource for all types of digital verification and investigations. And as the book’s editor Craig Silverman (of Regret the Errorstates, “We’re all media consumers and creators now. We can all be nodes in a network of truth or of falsehood. And we all, of course, want to have an accurate picture of what’s happening.” Learning how to judge the accuracy and credibility of information is one of the essential skills of the social media age.

For some great examples of how a skeptical and investigative mindset can be applied to photos and videos, watch this TED talk by Storyful’s former managing director:

*Fake and staged photos have a long history, going all the back to the early years of photography. For a fascinating story about how Errol Morris uncovered what may be the first faked photo, check out this Radiolab episode.
Photo source: Snopes.com

What House of Cards Teaches Us About the Value of Good Research

House of CardsWarning: some spoilers ahead!

I’ve been watching House of Cards, and like a lot of people, I’m morbidly fascinated by Frank and Claire Underwood’s evil machinations as they connive and kill their way to becoming the most powerful couple in the free (ha!) world. One thing that has struck me is how absolutely crucial good research is to their success.

The journalists in the show, of course, do a lot of digging as they try to uncover the truth behind Peter Russo’s death, but it’s the investigative research that Doug Stamper, Frank’s trusty assistant/dirty-work-doer, does that underlies major plot points and propels Frank’s career aspirations forward.

We see this in action as early as Chapter 2 in Season 1: Stamper uncovers an anti-Israel editorial that ran in the college newspaper that Michael Kern, the proposed candidate for Secretary of State, edited. When the story gets picked up by the media, the ensuing controversy for Kern seals the nomination for Frank’s preferred candidate.

Another point at which research helps Frank outmaneuver others is in Chapter 12, when Doug’s sleuthing reveals that, contrary to what President Walker had claimed, he and the billionaire Raymond Tusk are actually close friends. He discovers this by digging up the travel schedules of each man and identifying a number of instances where both men were in the same city at the same time (the president’s schedule would be publicly available, but I’m not sure how he could’ve gotten Tusk’s schedule; we’ll overlook that unexplained detail…). With this knowledge, Frank is able to remain in control in his interactions with Tusk, who, as he discovers later, is playing him.

Doug Stamper may be inscrutable and a bit creepy, but he’s a damn fine researcher. He has that magical combination of qualities that makes a good researcher: he’s smart, focussed, diligent, and detail-oriented, but also able to think outside the box and connect the dots. Frank’s success depends as much on Doug’s ability to dig up valuable gems that he can use to his advantage as it does on anything else. I’m only a couple of episodes into Season 2, but no doubt there will be other examples of Doug’s indispensable research.

Good research can make the difference between a successful leader and an also-ran. Good research provides knowledge, and knowledge is indeed power.

Photo source: House of Cards’ Facebook page