If you want to understand Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on power in Russia, then watch the new film “Navalny”, which premieres Sunday at. 21 ET on CNN.
The Russian government has gone to great lengths to equate opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was sentenced to prison after surviving an attempted poisoning.
The film documents the improbable detective work that identified the team of Russian spies who hunted and then attempted to kill Navalny, as well as his recovery in Germany and return to Russia, where he was immediately arrested.
I spoke with one of the investigators who uncovered the spies, Christo Grozev – who works with the Bellingcat investigation team – about his methods, his new mission documenting war crimes in Ukraine and his views on how to change the ethics of journalism to combat government corruption.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below:
WHAT DOES SOMETHING MEAN: In the documentary, you put all these pieces together – from phone numbers to car records and so on – to find out who poisoned Navalny. How have you and Bellingcat developed this research process? And what made you apply it to Russia in particular?
GROZEV: We started in a different way, by simply gathering social media in connection with the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
The first study that Bellingcat conducted by simply gathering available data from the Internet was the launch of (Malaysia Airlines) MH17 in July 2014.
At that time, a lot of public data was available about Russian soldiers, Russian spies and so on and so forth – because they still had not caught up with the time, so they kept a lot of digital tracks, social media, posting selfies in front of weapons shooting passenger planes down.
It was there that we in a way perfected the art of reconstructing a crime based on digital breadcrumbs. … But as time went on, just like the bad actors we were investigating, they started hiding their stuff better. … In 2016, it was no longer possible to find soldiers who left status selfies on the Internet because a new law had been passed in Russia, for example, banning the use of cell phones by secret services and by soldiers.
So we had to develop a new way of getting data on public crime. We found our way into this gray market of data in Russia, which consists of many, many gigabytes of leaked databases, car registration databases, passport databases.
Most of these are available for free, completely freely available from torrent sites or from forums and the internet.
And for some of them, they are more current. You can actually buy data through a broker, so we decided that in cases where we have a strong enough hypothesis that a government has committed the crime, we should probably drop our ethical boundaries from using such data – as long as it is verifiable, as long as it comes not only from one source but is confirmed by at least two or three other data sources.
That’s how we develop it. And the first major use case for this approach was … the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 (in the UK), when we used this combination of open source and data purchased from the gray market in Russia to put together who exactly the two toxins were. And it seemed huge.
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