Hidden in Plane Site: Inside the Citizen Investigation of Flight 752

As Canada reconciles with the aftermath of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, not-so-ordinary citizens have been doing something about it.

Bellingcat is an investigative website and collective of citizen investigators specializing in fact-checking and open source intelligence. Open source investigators working for Bellingcat have been retrieving, verifying and utilizing images and videos shared online which show the site of the crash and surrounding areas.

Image Source: Flightradar24.com

One video shared a day after the crash on January 9th, 2020 on a messaging service called Telegram showed the apparent impact of a missile on the aircraft, hardly visible due to the fact that the video was taken during dark morning hours. Although the New York Times confirmed the authenticity of the video by contacting the original poster, Bellingcat took it a step further by geolocating where the video was taken, measuring the distance between the videographer and the plane itself, and cross referencing this with the flight path. All from hardly visible footage from the internet. The New York Times came to a similar conclusion with their team who also geolocated the video.

To do this, investigators had to determine notable architecture or items seen in the background of the video. This can prove difficult when visibility is low, and footage is blurred. Next, they spent their time poring over satellite imagery to try and match what they saw in the video, from a low vantage point, to that of a bird’s eye view in the presumed area. Sound like a needle in a haystack? It is.

Image Source: Bellingcat.com

Using the speed of sound, investigators measured the distance between the person holding the camera and where the plane was hit. They used the time it took to hear the sound of the missile impact after it actually happened, noted by the flicker of light in the video. It’s similar to how we measure the distance of a storm by using the sound of thunder.

It was unknown at the time whether there was a possible second missile, but this was still suspected by Bellingcat investigators questioning if the video was prompted by an initial encounter. The New York Times had learned that the videographer had heard “some sort of shot fired,” which led them to film what ended up being the missile.

Giancarlo Fiorella is one of Bellingcat’s investigators who looked into the possibility of a missile strike. He is also a PhD student at the University of Toronto. Giancarlo and the Bellingcat team looked at another video which surfaced that suggested a second missile had targeted the aircraft on the morning of the incident. They used Twitter threads asking the public for insight. Pooling the resources and support of the greater online community is not uncommon during these investigations and can help their efficiency in sourcing information.

Since then, Giancarlo and the Bellingcat team have been collecting and categorizing images sourced online, which were first used to identify the crash site, but now serve a new purpose. In an interview with The Washington Post, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins said that, given recent concerns about the site being cleared, reconstructing a visual of the site may prove valuable to see what items survived the crash, in what placement and in what state of damage. This is to be preserved and organized in an archive in partnership with Syrian Archive.

Based on the trajectories of the two missiles and the airplane, if this is indeed footage of the #PS752 event then the vantage point could be somewhere in this area (green line is PS752 flight path): 35.613541, 50.920686 pic.twitter.com/5TRsTKEotd— Giancarlo Fiorella (@gianfiorella) January 14, 2020

Source: Twitter

There is an embedded sense of insecurity about how much access to information Canadians have had since the downing of flight 752. With a lacking diplomatic relationship between Iran and Canada since 2012, it’s no wonder. Iran first claimed that a mechanical issue was to blame for the crash of flight 752, but the aircraft was later confirmed to be shot down by a missile initiated by Iran. Iran claimed responsibility for the downing eventually, but the insecurity deepened when word came out of the possible clearing of the site. What’s more, investigators will reportedly be given access to the site and downloaded content of the black boxes (a promise Iran seems to be wavering on), but the full scope of their role in the investigation is still not entirely clear. Meanwhile, Canada has consistently voiced that Canadian victims and their mourning families deserve answers and full access should be provided by Iran.

Open source research is collaborative, iterative…and open.

We’re all in this together.

Many times the facts depend on it.#OSINT #DigitalSherlocks https://t.co/tMRrtPltWr— Graham Brookie (@GrahamBrookie) January 14, 2020

Source: Twitter

The power of the globalized nature of the internet and citizens holding global powers to account has the power to shine a critical light through this avoidable tragedy. Despite the risks for disinformation on the internet, Bellingcat’s investigation shows the internet can be a tool for disarming disinformation in the real world; and in the muddy politics of state powers.