UPDATED: Think you’re hidden online? Think again, says Neil Smith

By Alex Smith

Social media accounts and personal details may not be as private as users think, students were told at Leeds Trinity Journalism Week.

Neil Smith is the co-founder and executive officer of research and investigations at Qwarie Ltd, a company that specialises in legally obtaining information online.

Neil said: “Open source intelligence is not just things that are only available if you work in certain environments, like bank details or driving license information. But there’s a lot of information out there for anyone to access.

“Everything we do is legal, we only access publicly available information. A lot of people don’t realise how much you can access.

“Most people think they can search online, and most people are wrong.”

Neil began his career as a police officer for Avon and Somerset police, before becoming an investigator. This helped him to develop his skills.

His early investigative roles involved following people with a camera, but technology advances have made his job easier.

He said: “I don’t need to follow anyone with cameras anymore, I haven’t done that since 2003. I just follow people online now.”

Neil showed the shocked audience how sensitive information such as phone numbers and addresses can be easily obtained online by an investigator.

Using the Instagram profile of a random member of the public, Neil managed to find their contact details, address, car registration and mother’s maiden name.

He went on to describe how the methods he uses has led to the conviction of paedophiles, and the discovery of benefit fraudsters and insurance cheats.

Neil also discussed how journalists have used websites such as Echosec, a geolocation site which shows users’ social media posts in a certain area. These have allowed journalists to obtain images not available online and contact witnesses.

He said: “When the Manchester bombings happened, you could look to see who was posting from there or nearby. There are your witnesses.

“If there’s a football match and a riot happens, and someone posts a picture about it, they’ve probably got another 10 photos on their phone that no one else has got.”

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