Berlin’s No 1 digital detective agency is on the trail of human rights abusers

Investigators in Germany are using Google Earth, YouTube clips and social media posts to bring political crimes to the courts

With its high ceilings, white walls and bleached pine furniture it could be one of the many artist’s studios or galleries that dot this corner of central Berlin. A grey curtain with plastic holes, stitched together by Franco-Italian artist Céline Condorelli, snakes between desks to divide the room into public and private spaces.

In fact, this second-floor space inside a beige brick former soap factory is something closer to a newsroom or a detective agency, tripling up as a lawyers’ chambers. Next month it will formally be launched as the home of the Investigative Commons, a kind of super-hub for organisations whose work has revolutionised the field of human rights activism.

Most of the desks will be taken up by Forensic Architecture, a team of architects, archaeologists and journalists whose digital models of crime scenes have been cited as evidence at the international criminal court, contributed to the sentencing of the neo-Nazi leaders of Greece’s Golden Dawn party, and led to an unprecedented apology from Benjamin Netanyahu over the accidental killing of a Bedouin teacher.

Then there is the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a human rights NGO, which last year brought to court the first worldwide case against Syrian state torture.

Bellingcat – the organisation started by British blogger Eliot Higgins that revealed the perpetrators behind the poisonings of MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny – will have its name on a desk in the hub as well as Mnemonic, a Berlin-based group of Syrian exiles who build databases to archive evidence of war crimes in their homeland, and Laura Poitras, the US film-maker who worked with whistleblower Edward Snowden to expose the National Security Agency’s (NSA) global surveillance programme.

They all share, says Poitras, “a commitment to primary evidence”: each group works on the cutting edge of what has come to be known as “open-source intelligence”, the mass-harvesting, modelling and examination of publicly available material from Google Earth, social media posts or YouTube videos. In the post-truth era, they excel at the painstaking task of corroborating the facts behind disputed events. “The traditional model for human rights work is that you have a big NGO that sends experts to the frontline of a conflict, speaks to sources and then writes up a report on their return,” says Forensic Architecture’s British-Israeli founder Eyal Weizman. “Nowadays, evidence is produced by people on the frontline of the struggle. You no longer have one trusted source but dozens of sources, from satellite images to smartphone data. Our challenge lies in assembling these sources.”

Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative journalism website Bellingcat.
Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative journalism website Bellingcat. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Observer

These groups have occasionally collaborated, but have broadly followed their own paths for over a decade. The decision to pool their investigative tools, with the added legal heft of ECCHR, is a sign that open-source investigations could be coming of age, moving one step further away from art and academia towards a world where the ultimate judge of their work will be a sober, bewigged individual in a courtroom.

“Facts need good litigators,” says Weizman. “Human rights work is transforming: you used to have these big clearing-house-style NGOs that did everything. Now it’s more like an ecosystem of investigators and litigators. Rather than one person writing up a report, there is a constant workshop, with people being brought in all the time as long as confidentiality allows.”

As with any all-star team, there is a risk of key players stepping on each other’s toes as they jockey for the same position on the field.

“Of course there’s a certain tension,” says ECCHR’s founder, Wolfgang Kaleck. “You have to be aware which pitch you are playing on at any given stage, and what the rules of the game are.”

The first showcase of the physical collaboration is a joint investigation documenting human rights abuses in Yemen. Syrian journalist Hadi al-Khatib’s Mnemonic has amassed and verified thousands of videos of airstrikes in the multisided civil war on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula.

Forensic Architecture applied its own mapping software to tell the story of these incidents through time and space. Evidence from the scenes of these attacks, such as fragments of munition found on site, then provided clues as to the identity of the western manufacturers of the weapons used – which is where ECCHR’s lawyers have come in.

The fact that this assembly line for investigations into human rights abuses will be physically located in Berlin has much to do with the German capital’s history and social environment – but also the conditions for investigative work in post-Brexit Britain.

The Investigative Commons exhibition at HKW.
The Investigative Commons exhibition at HKW. Photograph: Miguel Brusch

Both Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture were once British success stories. The former was started in 2014 from the front room of Leicester-based Higgins, then still an office worker-cum-blogger going by the Frank Zappa-inspired alias Brown Moses. The latter grew out of, and continues to be affiliated with, Goldsmiths, University of London, and was nominated for the Turner prize in 2018.

But as these groups have grown on the back of their successes, Britain’s departure from the EU has made the task of bringing in new researchers with international backgrounds more cumbersome, with EU nationals now required to show proof of settled status or a skilled-worker visa. Goldsmiths announced a hiring freeze last May.

For many people working in the non-corporate sector, the UK’s appeal has dimmed. “Of all the talented software developers we were aware of and interested in hiring, those who wanted to move to London wanted to work in finance,” says Robert Trafford, Forensic Architecture’s research coordinator. “Those who lived in Berlin wanted to bring down the FBI.”Frankfurt, not Berlin, is Germany’s banking capital, which is one of the reasons why renting in Berlin is still cheaper than in many other large European cities, allowing young people to pursue activities that may not pay dividends in the short term.

Berlin’s annual re:publica tech conference and financial support structures, such as the Open Knowledge Foundation’s €47,500 (£40,000) Prototype Fund for “socially relevant open-source projects”, have also contributed to making it what Weizman calls “a unique sociotope”. “We’ve had amazing coders who wanted to work for us but said: ‘I’d never leave Berlin for London.’”

Traditional human rights NGOs have started using Berlin as the place to launch their own open-source investigations. Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab, which has used satellite technology and 3D modelling to uncover human rights abuses in Ethiopia and Myanmar, has been led for the last five years from the city. Human Rights Watch’s Digital Investigations Lab has key staff in Berlin, as well as a project with the German space agency.

Bellingcat, which made its name with an investigation into the 2014 crash of the Kuala Lumpur-bound Malaysia Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam, moved its main offices to the Dutch capital in 2018. “Brexit created uncertainties on the horizon,” says Higgins. “We didn’t want to be a in a position where our international staff couldn’t stay in the UK. We needed something that gave us more flexibility.”

A model to answer a question about a killing in a Bedouin village in Israel.
A model to answer a question about a killing in a Bedouin village in Israel. Photograph: Forensic Architecture 2021

Another factor behind the move was that investigative journalism per se is not a recognised charitable purpose in the UK, and consequently has limited access to the funding opportunities and tax advantages of charities. In the Netherlands, Bellingcat is now set up as a stichting, or foundation.

As well being a founding member of the Investigative Commons, Forensic Architecture is moving a quarter of its staff to Germany to set up Forensis, an NGO that will be a registered association or eingetragener Verein under German law, allowing it to access funding that would not be available in the UK. It will focus its work on human rights issues with a European dimension, from cybersurveillance and rightwing extremism to immigration.

The University of London will continue to be a home for the group of digital detectives but could eventually become more of an “incubator” for new research methods, says Weizman.

Berlin has been in a similar situation before. In around 2014 the city looked briefly as if it had become the world’s ultimate safe harbour, from where hackers, human rights groups and artists would expose humanitarian abuses globally.

WikiLeaks staffers were marooned in Berlin’s counterculture scene, fearful of being detained upon return to the US or the UK. Poitras edited her Snowden film, Citizenfour, in the city, concerned her source material could be seized by the government in America. Chinese dissidents such as Liu Xia, Liao Yiwu and Ai Weiwei also found new homes here.

For multiple reasons, that promise was not fulfilled. Ai grew exasperated with the city’s coarse-mouthed taxi drivers. WikiLeaks’s vision of radical transparency proved hard to reconcile with the tried-and-tested methods of human rights advocacy.

“Perhaps then the expectation of what Berlin could become was simply too great,” says Kaleck, who is Snowden’s lawyer. Nowadays, Berlin may be less of a city for dreaming of digital revolutions, and more of a place to get work done. “We’re on an even keel now – that’s a good starting point.”


Philip Oltermann in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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