It's Complicated: An Initial Guide to Investigations in the Global South - Part 1 - OSINT

Gathering open source (OSINT) and human source (HUMINT) intelligence in investigations can be laborious and fraught work, especially in the Global South. The host of activities that fall within these two complementary areas of work are varied and comprise a whole host of sources and methods. There are markedly different considerations to bear in mind depending on the context of the work (i.e. targets, subject matter, etc.) and the location. A comprehensive review of these is beyond the scope of this blog post. However, it's important to point out some key considerations that are common to investigative work in the Global South.

In this post, we will focus on considerations around OSINT. Ultimately, both investigators and their clients should bear these in mind when operating in regions like Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. As such, consider this post a non-exhaustive first attempt to collect some 'tips' that are important to bear in mind for investigators and their clients. In a sense, it is a glimpse into some of the issues we routinely consider when analysing and presenting investigative findings.


Public Records

Public records are one of the prime sources of information in many investigations. There are several key considerations to keep in mind that are especially important in the Global South.

Administrative Divisions: How are administrative/government bodies and their jurisdictional reach organised in the country in which you are operating?

Starting from the macro level, is it a federal system or a unitary system? Is the legal system organised as a Continental Law system or a Common Law system or some mix (e.g. South Africa, Nigeria, etc.)? Moving to the micro level, administrative structure can mean different things depending on the country in which you are operating and the records for which you are searching.

The structure of administrative divisions can mean the difference between checking 4-5 courts versus 20+; it can mean the difference between checking one central property or corporate registry versus more than 30 locations (sometimes just to cover one city). This aspect is often overlooked by both investigators and their clients, but can easily affect the cost, feasibility, complexity, and completeness of the work. Investigators cannot represent a search as 'complete' if it isn't, but clients should also be prepared to either tailor the scope or accept that the administrative structure can complicate searches and impact costs.

Context: How common is what you found?

Economic informality, selective enforcement, and complex bureaucracy are often common features of markets in the Global South. It's critical that public record findings in any investigation be adequately contextualised.

In other words, if there are, for instance, common enforcement patterns of certain administrative or legal regulations, this should be made clear. For example, in certain markets, the complexity of the tax code coupled with a federal system means that nearly every subject has had tax enforcement issues at some point. Similarly, there may be patterns in certain industries where enforcement is more or less onerous, selective, etc. Finally, enforcement patterns can be affected by political, ethnic, or socioeconomic considerations. This is important context for the recipient of the findings.

Available vs. Publicly Available: Can anyone search for and obtain the record in question?

There is a vital difference between (i.) records that are available to the public in theory but not necessarily in practice and (ii.) records that are not publicly available in theory but may be in practice. For instance, in certain jurisdictions, your request for public information will be denied if it is worded improperly. In other cases, certain records may not be available to all members of the public, but others, like attorneys, may have easier access.

Accuracy: Are the records up-to-date? Did you search thoroughly?

This question goes directly to the issue of how much a search can be represented as 'comprehensive'. Many countries in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa are making slow progress towards digitisation of records (with varying degrees of speed and success). As such, one may encounter databases or repositories that are current only as of a certain date.

Bureaucratic and other concerns may affect how current, up-to-date, and available the records in question are. There may be delays, for instance, in how often a local authority sends updates to the central database. In addition, it's important to keep in mind that digitising records can lead to errors and misspellings. As such, it is crucial to attempt searches with common variations in spellings if these exist to ensure that searches are comprehensive.

Cost: How much money? How much time?

Costs for obtaining records can vary in confusing ways in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Importantly, 'cost' here should be read as both monetary and non-monetary. This can vary from the mundane (such as a cost per page for copies past a certain page limit) to the complex (such as an unofficial 'foreigner tax').

Finally, the time element is critical to understand. There are some markets where certain information may be available through a public information request but this request may take up to one month or more to complete. It is also not uncommon for delays to be imposed by clerks and bureaucrats as a means to create pressure for facilitation payments to be made.

Workarounds: What are the alternative sources?

It is critical to consider alternative sources that may contain the same information one is seeking. For instance, in certain jurisdictions, intellectual property filings or procurement records may be a 'workaround' to obtaining corporate filings, which have a high cost in terms of time. In other jurisdictions, judicial or state bulletins may serve as an alternate source of information for data that are more difficult to obtain.

Safety and other considerations: Who are we looking at?

The profile of the subject(s) may influence the conduct of the investigation, even where public records are involved. We have seen cases where clerks at public records repositories have concealed records related to powerful persons, delayed turning over records, or even alerted subjects that someone is asking about them. Sometimes these situations are unavoidable, but mitigating strategies can involve building relationships of trust with certain record repositories, using alternative sources as workarounds, and making requests through trusted agents.


Media: Do you understand what's in the paper?

Apart from public records, media are also key sources in OSINT, but there are several salient points to bear in mind in the Global South.

  • Media landscape and press freedom: The media landscape of the market(s) in question can influence how news is reported and how it should be viewed in context. In smaller jurisdictions, it may not be uncommon to have only a handful of 'major newspapers'. In jurisdictions that have suffered extreme political polarisation or are under autocratic governments we have often seen that even purportedly private media outlets can be effectively controlled by the state. This sometimes leads to a situation where traditional journalists (sometimes turned political exiles) turn to blogs and other alternatives to continue producing content. The issue with blogs, of course, is that anyone can publish one and in cases of extreme polarisation or controversial figures, we have even seen falsified content published and disseminated via networks of private blogs.

  • Editorial line, ownership, trustworthiness: When looking at traditional media in markets in the Global South it's often instructive to consider the outlet's editorial line and history. Some outlets have traditionally pro-business or anti-government stances. Some lean to the political left or right. There is also often a confluence of media, business, and political interests. As such, the ownership of the media outlet can affect the way it covers stories. Finally, the general feeling of trustworthiness of the outlet itself is important to consider. Is it considered a major press outlet or not? Is it considered overtly biased in some way?

  • Context from HUMINT: Ideally, OSINT findings and HUMINT findings should consistently 'feed into' each other. Human source interviews should ideally be prepped for with OSINT collection and analysis. Interviews can then be used to attempt to verify OSINT findings. Often, HUMINT collection can yield additional, even critical context, about media findings. HUMINT will be covered in a separate post.

OSINT collection in the Global South presents a host of complications and pitfalls that are often markedly different from those one might encounter in other jurisdictions. It's important that these complications be considered by both investigators and their clients because, in the end, local context is key to understanding any findings.