If you want to understand Vladimir Putin’s tightening of power in Russia, watch new movie “Navalny,” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.
The Russian government has gone to great lengths to remove the leader of the opposition Alexey Navalnywho was sentenced to prison after surviving a poisoning incident.
The film chronics impromptu detective work that identifies the group of Russian spies that hunted down and then attempted to kill Navalny, as well as his recovery in Germany and his return to Russia, where he was immediately arrested. ie.
I spoke to one of the investigators who unmasked the spies, Christo Grozev – who works with the Bellingcat investigation team – about his methods, his new mission to document war crimes in Ukraine. and how his views on journalistic ethics must change to combat government corruption.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is as follows:
WHAT’S UP: In the documentary, you put all this together – from phone numbers to car registrations, etc. – to find out who poisoned Navalny. How did you and Bellingcat develop this investigative process? And what made you apply it to Russia?
GROZEV: We started it a different way, by stitching together social media posts in the context of Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
The first investigation that Bellingcat carried out by simply concatenating pieces of data available from the internet was the landing of (Malaysia Airlines) MH17 in July 2014.
At that time, a lot of public data about Russian soldiers, Russian spies, etc. posted selfies in front of the weapon that shot down the plane.
That’s where we perfected the art of digitally-linked crime reconstruction. … But as time went on, the kind of bad guys we were investigating, they started to better hide their stuff. … By 2016, soldiers were no longer seen posting selfies online because a new law was passed in Russia, such as banning secret services and soldiers from using phones mobile.
So we had to develop a new way to get government crime data. We made our way into this gray data market in Russia, including many, many gigabytes of leaked databases, automobile registration databases, passport databases.
Most of them are freely available, completely free to download from torrent sites or from forums and the internet.
And for some of them, they are more present. You can actually buy data through a broker, so we decided that in the event that we have a strong enough hypothesis that the government has committed a crime, we should probably drop the moral line of from using that data – as long as it’s verifiable, as long as it doesn’t just come from one source but is corroborated by at least two or three other data sources.
That’s how we developed it. And the first big use case for this approach is… poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 (in the UK), when we used a combination of open source and data purchased from the gray market in Russia to piece together exactly who the two poisoners were. And that worked very well.
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