CIJ Summer School: Web Detective Tools & Techniques

By Chie Elliott

One of the sessions I most enjoyed at the CIJ Summer School in July 2010 for its sheer “geekiness” was Paul Myers’ Web Detective. As my attendance was kindly sponsored by Help Me Investigate, I will be sharing my notes from the course on this blog, so that other HMI investigators can also benefit from the knowledge.

Paul Myers works as a researcher, investigator and trainer at the BBC, specialising in finding information on the Internet. This may sound obvious in an age when even a four-year-old seems to know how to buy a car on EBay using his parents’ credit card, but Myers goes well beyond your average advance googling and setting up RSS feeds into what to me sounds like James Bond territory.

Starting with basics
  • Web investigations can be started with basic use of search engines. A search on Bing may give you different results from one on Google; it is worth using both to compare. Filter your search as much as possible by entering as many relevant key words or criteria as possible in your search. Personally I find this “Google search cheat sheet” quite useful, but I also came across this BBC Training page, by Myers, which explains why some words serve as ‘anchors’, others as ‘rudders’ when organising your search.
  • Do not estimate social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, as sources of information. They can give you an insight not only on the person’s online (and offline) social activities, but what messages they are leaving on other people’s “walls”. If you find out a person’s online ID/username on one site, this is likely to help you track them on multiple sites.

General search tips
  • Knowing the email address of the person you are investigating about can be a most helpful piece of information, as it allows you to narrow down the search, as opposed to searching by name. Even if you do not know their email, remember that people often have web-based email accounts such as Hotmail or Gmail, so try a combination of name or online ID + hotmailATcom or gmailATcom, etc.
  • Don’t forget that sometimes people use different spelling for their names. Try variations. 
  • Resist entering names in quotes for added search flexibility. Instead of “John Smith” try using John*Smith. The * (asterisk) in between ensures proximity between the two names in the results. For instance, if you wanted to find out any information about Obama in relation to the World Cup, enter: Obama*”world cup”.
  • You can search within specific sites. With Google Custom Search, you can custom build your search to specific websites or webpages.

People Finders
  • – a “deep web search” using name, email address or username. For Americans, the site also offers the option of searching by telephone number. Enter any name or email address and test the search. You will be aghast at how comprehensive the gathered information is.
  • A similar search tool is 123People, which will basically give you an online profile for that person’s name, including all social networking accounts, even Amazon Wish Lists.
  • allows you to search phone books, electoral rolls, business information, company credit reports, birth, marriage and death certificates.

Website info finder
  • WHOIS queries remote WHOIS databases for domain registration information. You can find out when and by whom a domain was registered and their contact information. Each number on an IP address is linked to either a user or a web server. This service is free of charge, but did not fall under Myer’s list of most recommended.
  • With DomainTools, you can even check previous registrations of domain names. By clicking on its Reverse IP service, you can look on the server to see what other other addresses/domains are hosted on the same IP address. For investigative journalists, who do not want to be searched in this way, it is therefore good to be aware that by using Domains by Proxy, you can hide your IP address. 

“Cyber condoms”
  • The expression above belongs to Paul Myers. With so many advance search tools available on the web, investigators also need to protect themselves against their own weapons. If you do not want your searches to be tracked down, apart from deleting your Web History, you can search anonymously using the free service of It is the wise spy entering the house with gloves on so that no fingerprints are left behind.
  • An alternative is to download the open source software Tor, which will anonymise your connections to the Internet and prevent people from discovering which sites you visit as well as blocking the sites you visit from learning your location. 

For more tools recommended by Myers and useful links to help you understand every aspect of searching and being searched online, visit Paul Myers’ Research Clinic website. 

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