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A guide to being an ethical online investigator

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A guide to being an ethical online investigator


But this activity raises some complex ethical and practical issues. How can you, an average person, be an ethical digital activist? What counts as going too far? How can you keep yourself safe? How can you participate in a way that doesn’t put anyone in danger? Below are some guidelines that might help.

Remember, you are not a hacker: There’s a big difference between accessing publicly available information, like a photo from a Facebook profile page that documents illegal activity, and hacking into a person’s otherwise private account to find that photo. That’s crossing the line.In the US, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) limits the amount of access a person has to another’s information “without authorization,” which is undefined; this lack of clarity has frustrated lawyers who represent activists. “Those who do [violate CFAA] are breaking the law, and they’re criminals,” says Max Aliapoulios, a PhD student and cybersecurity researcher at New York University. It’s worth keeping in mind regional laws as well. In the European Union, “publicly identifying an individual necessarily means processing personally identifiable information; therefore individuals performing such activities need a legal basis to do so [under Article 6 of the GDPR],” says Ulf Buermeyer, the founder and legal director of Freiheitsrechte, a German-based civil rights organization.

Ethical issues abound: It’s not just legal issues that would-be amateur online investigators need to be aware of. Much of the online activity carried out in the wake of the Capitol riots raises ethical questions, too. Should a person who didn’t storm the Capitol but attended the rallies leading up to the riots be identified and risk punishment at work? Do those who were in and around the Capitol on January 6 automatically lose the right to privacy even if they weren’t involved in riots? It’s worth thinking through how you feel about some of these questions before you continue. Few are clear cut.

So, where does the information come from? “Our bread and butter is open source,” Fiorella says. “Open-source media” refers to information that is publicly available for use. Data archivists, or those who collect and preserve information online for historical purposes, accessed such open-source data to save posts before they disappeared as social media companies pushed President Donald Trump and many of his supporters off their platforms. “If you were at the Capitol storming and recorded video and took selfies that anyone can access, and it’s openly available on the internet, it’s fair game,” says Fiorella.

It’s your First Amendment right to access open-sourced information. Hacktivists and digital activists trawling social media alike will agree on this: they say it’s the most important aspect of their work. “Utilizing open-source intelligence isn’t a crime,” says Daly Barnett, an activist and staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. “Archiving isn’t a crime. Freedom of information is good.”

Misidentification is a real danger. “Anyone with an internet connection and free time and willingness to do these things can be part of crowdsourcing efforts to clarify what happened,” Fiorella says. But crowdsourced efforts can be problematic, because people may zero in on the wrong individual. “There’s a fundamental tension here,” says Emmi Bevensee, a researcher and founder of the Social Media Analysis Toolkit, an open-source tool that tracks trends across mainstream and fringe social media platforms. “The more people you have working on a problem, the more likely you are to find the needle in the haystack. There’s a risk doing things like this, though. Not everyone has the same research skills or methodological accountability”—and mistakes can be devastating for the person misidentified. Misidentification carries potential legal risks, too.

You can join up with more established investigators instead of going it alone. There is, obviously, the FBI, which has collected images and is seeking the public’s help in identifying domestic terrorists. Bellingcat, one of the most respected, thorough investigatory sites devoted to this purpose, has created a Google spreadsheet for images of suspects that need identifying. Organizations also often have ethical standards put in place to guide new sleuths, like this one Bellingcat created in light of the Black Lives Matters protests.

Don’t doxx. Doxxing—or digging up personal information and sharing it publicly—is illegal. “The majority of doxxing has occurred from open-source intelligence,” Barnett says, and data hygiene is still something many people online struggle with. If you come across passwords, addresses, phone numbers, or any other similar identifier, do not share it—it’s a crime to do so. r/Datahoarder, a Reddit archiving group, notes that its members “do NOT support witch hunting.” 

If you find something online that could be incriminating, ask, “Am I putting this person in danger?” Fiorella says he asks himself that question consistently, particularly in cases where a person might have few followers and is using social media just to share images with friends.

Show your methodology. Just like in middle school math class, show your work and how you got your results. Data researchers who do this work are famously diligent and exhaustive in how they record their work and triple-check their information. That sort of checking is especially important to ensure that people are properly identified and that others can learn from and retrace your steps for subsequent prosecution. (Methodology may take some technical expertise in some cases, and data researching organizations often run workshops and training sessions to help people learn how to do this.)

Do not share names online. Let’s say you see a picture of a possible suspect online and you recognize who it is. While you might be tempted to tag the person, or screenshot the image and put some commentary on your Instagram to get that addictive stream of likes, don’t. This work needs to be deliberate and slow, says Fiorella: “There’s a risk of misidentifying a person and causing harm.” Even if there’s no doubt that you have figured out who a person is, hold back and, at the most, submit your information to an organization like Bellingcat or the FBI to check your work and make sure it is correct.

You will run into situations where things are not clear. Theo shared the story of the viral video in which a Black Los Angeles woman is physically attacked by Trump supporters calling her the n-word. In the video, a man is seen with his arms around the woman amid the violent, jeering crowd. In initial reports, the man was described as part of the mob and harming the woman. Video footage seemed to show him putting her in the way of pepper spray, for example. Then police said the man was actually trying to protect the woman and that she had confirmed this version of events, though she later suggested to BuzzFeed that perhaps he ended up doing as much harm as good. Theo shared the image of the man in the immediate aftermath of the incident, and then he saw the account suggesting he was a good Samaritan. “I felt horrible,” he says. Theo points out that the man was also recorded using xenophobic and racist language, but “that got me to pause a little bit and think about what I’m doing that could impact people,” he says. “It’s a blurred line.” It doesn’t hurt to repeat it again: Do not share names online.

Your safety may be at risk. Theo says he has received death threats and has not felt safe in the past week, consistently looking over his shoulder if he steps out. Bevensee has received multiple death threats. Many digital activists have burner phones and backup computers, and work away from their families to protect them.

Keep your mental health in mind. This work can involve viewing violent images. Theo says he has been dealing with migraine headaches, sleep problems, paranoia, and the distress that comes with trying to keep up with his day job while handling his Instagram accounts and its sister Twitter account, @OutTerrorists. “I’m only one person, and I have to handle DMs and keep everything up to date,” he says, noting that he also updates posts with verified identifications from the FBI, goes through comments, and forwards information to the FBI himself. Take time to process and realize that it’s okay to feel upset. It’s one thing to use this as motivation to right the wrongs of the world, but nearly every expert and activist told me that having a way to deal with disturbing images is important.

Share your information with law enforcement—if it’s appropriate. Bevensee and Aliapoulios said the digital activism movement was a direct response to the perceived lack of official action. Many activists have a strong distrust of US law enforcement, pointing to the difference between how the Capitol rioters and Black Lives Matter protesters were treated. But in the case of the insurrection, which carries federal charges, experts and activists agree that the right thing to do is to take information to the authorities.



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Reopening US schools is complicated.

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Reopening US schools is complicated.


Across the country, schools are wrestling with the difficult choice of whether to reopen, and how to do it with reduced risk. In Kalamazoo, Michigan—not far from one the main sites where Pfizer is frantically manufacturing vaccines—they plan to stay virtual through the end of the school year. In Iowa, a state without a mask mandate, kids can now go back to in-person learning full time. Meanwhile, in a school district in San Mateo County, California, that borders Silicon Valley, there’s no clear decision—and low-income and affluent parents are clashing over what to do

It’s been a difficult journey. Since March 2020, when most schools closed, districts have been asked to adjust over and over—to new science about how the virus behaves, new policy recommendations, and the different needs of families, kids, teachers, and staff. 

Now, as President Biden forges ahead with his promise to reopen most schools within his first 100 days, the debates sound as complicated as ever—and offer a glimpse into many of the difficulties of reopening society at large. 

The limits of “guidance”

Schools across the country have looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on how to operate in the pandemic. In its latest recommendations, the CDC says a lot of the things we’ve heard all year: that everyone in a school building should wear masks, stay at least six feet apart, and wash their hands frequently. But schools have found that even when guidelines seem relatively straightforward on paper, they are often much harder—or downright impossible—to put into practice. 

“There’s a difference between public health mitigation policies when we think them through and when we write them down, and then when we try to implement them,” says Theresa Chapple, an epidemiologist in Washington, DC. “We see that there are barriers at play.”

Chapple points to a recent study by the CDC that looked at elementary schools in Georgia. After just 24 days of in-person learning, the researchers found nine clusters of covid-19 cases that could be linked back to the school. In all, about 45 students and teachers tested positive. How did that happen? Classroom layouts and class sizes meant physical distancing wasn’t possible, so students were less than three feet apart, separated only by plastic dividers. And though students and teachers mostly wore masks, students had to eat lunch in their classrooms. 

Researchers also note that teachers and students may have infected each other “during small group instruction sessions in which educators worked in close proximity to students.”

Following the CDC’s best practices might be inherently difficult, but it’s also complicated by the fact that they are just guidelines: states and other jurisdictions make the rules, and those often conflict with what the CDC says to do. Since February 15, Iowa schools have been required to offer fully in-person learning options that some school officials say make distancing impossible. Because the state no longer has a mask mandate, students aren’t required to wear masks in school.

Jurisdictions following all these different policies have one thing in common: although case totals have dipped since their peak in January, the vast majority of the US still has substantial or high community spread. A big takeaway from the CDC’s latest guidance is that high community transmission is linked to increased risk in schools. 

“If we are opening schools,” Chapple says, “we are saying that there’s an acceptable amount of spread that we will take in order for children to be educated.”

Meeting different needs

Some schools are trying alternative tactics that they hope will reduce the risks associated with in-person learning. 

In Sharon, a Massachusetts town just south of Boston where about 60% of public school students are still learning remotely, pods of students and staff are called down to a central location in their school building twice a week for voluntary covid-19 testing. One by one, children as young as five turn up, sanitize their hands, lower their mask, swab their own nostrils, and place their swab in a single test tube designated for their whole cohort. To make room for everyone, sometimes even the principal’s office becomes a testing site: one person in, one person out. The tubes are then sent to a lab for something called “pooled testing.”

After just 24 days of in-person learning, the researchers found nine clusters of covid-19 cases that could be linked back to the school. 

Pooled testing allows a small group of samples to be tested for covid all at once. In Sharon, each tube holds anywhere from 5 to 25 samples. If the test for that small group comes back negative, the whole group is cleared. If it’s positive, each group member is tested until the positive individual is found. Meg Dussault, the district’s acting superintendent, says each pool test costs the school between $5 and $50, and over a third of Sharon Public Schools students and staff participate. 

“I’ve seen the benefits of this,” she says “And I believe it’s essential.”

Because schools are funded unequally and largely through taxes, access to resources is a common theme in discussions of school reopening. The state paid for Sharon’s pilot period, but not every district or school has the money or staffing to mount large-scale programs—and Dussault says the district will need to foot the bill for any testing once this program ends in April. It will also need to keep relying on the goodwill of the parent volunteers who wrangle students and swabs for testing each week. 

In the seven weeks since pooled testing began, Dussault says, only one batch has come back positive. It’s given her peace of mind.

And even with mitigation measures in place, there are stark demographic differences in opinion on reopening. A recent Pew study found that Black, Asian, and Hispanic adults are more likely to support holding off until teachers have access to vaccines. Those groups are also more likely than white adults to say that the risk of covid-19 transmission “should be given a lot of consideration” when weighing reopening.

Chapple worries that these parents’ concerns will be overlooked, or that funds for remote learning will dwindle because some districts decide to move to in-person learning.

She says: “School districts need to keep in mind that if they’re reopening but a small percentage of their minority students are coming back, what does that look like in terms of equity?” 

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SpaceX has successfully landed Starship after flight for the first time

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SpaceX has successfully landed Starship after flight for the first time


On March 3, SpaceX’s Starship pulled off a successful high-altitude flight—its third in a row. Unlike in the first two missions, the spacecraft stuck the landing. Then, as in the last two, the spacecraft blew up.

What happened: At around 5:14 p.m. US Central Time, the 10th Starship prototype (SN10) was launched from SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, flying about 10 kilometers into the air before falling back down and descending safely to Earth. 

About 10 minutes later, the spacecraft blew up, from what appears to have been a methane leak. Still, the actual objectives of the mission were met.

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Rocket Lab could be SpaceX’s biggest rival

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Rocket Lab could be SpaceX’s biggest rival


In the private space industry, it can seem that there’s SpaceX and then there’s everyone else. Only Blue Origin, backed by its own billionaire founder in the person of Jeff Bezos, seems able to command the same degree of attention. And Blue Origin hasn’t even gone beyond suborbital space yet. 

Rocket Lab might soon have something to say about that duopoly. The company, founded in New Zealand and headquartered in Long Beach, California, is second only to SpaceX when it comes to launch frequency—the two are ostensibly the only American companies that regularly go to orbit. Its small flagship Electron rocket has flown 18 times in just under four years and delivered almost 100 satellites into space, with only two failed launches. 

On March 1, the company made its ambitions even clearer when it unveiled plans for a new rocket called Neutron. At 40 meters tall and able to carry 20 times the weight that Electron can, Neutron is being touted by Rocket Lab as its entry into markets for large satellite and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions to the moon and Mars. Even more tantalizing, Rocket Lab says Neutron will be designed for human spaceflight as well. The company calls it a “direct alternative” to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket

“Rocket Lab is one of the success stories among the small launch companies,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “They are edging into the territory of the larger, more established launch companies now—especially SpaceX.”

That ambition was helped by another bit of news announced on March 1: Rocket Lab’s merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation. Joining forces with a special-purpose acquisition company, a type of company that ostensibly enables another business to go public without an IPO, will allow Rocket Lab to benefit from a massive influx of money that gives it a new valuation of $4.1 billion. Much of that money is going toward development and testing of Neutron, which the company wants to start flying in 2024.

It’s a bit of an about-face for Rocket Lab. CEO Peter Beck had previously been lukewarm about the idea of building a larger rocket that could launch bigger payloads and potentially offer launches for multiple customers at once. 

But the satellite market has embraced ride-share missions into orbit, especially given the rise of satellite mega-constellations, which will probably make up most satellites launched into orbit over the next decade. Neutron is capable of taking 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, which means it could deliver potentially dozens of payloads to orbit at once. As a lighthearted mea culpa, the introductory video for Neutron showed Beck eating his own hat. 

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