Independent investigative teams of volunteers, such as researchers, investigators, or citizen journalists, offer their time to conduct investigations on different international cases. These teams can work together to reach answers to unsolved cases, if not their curiosities, by gathering Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) or by being trained or working directly with local or governmental law enforcement agencies. This article will explore the following examples of such volunteer investigative teams and several of their investigations: Bellingcat, Trace Lab, Locate International, EUROPOL, OSINT for Ukraine, LiveUAmap, and Volunteer in Police Service.
Bellingcat is well known for its reports and volunteer investigations on the MH-17 case and many others, which prove how citizens can aid in intelligence work. Their reports on MH-17 illustrate, among other findings, the false affirmations released by Russia and a timeline of the surface-to-air Buk 332 movements before and after the missile destroyed the Boeing 777 (1). Besides this case, Bellingcat has worked on other projects involving the geolocation of a Russian general, solving World War II photo mysteries, and many other international investigations. What makes Bellingcat even more attractive are their experiments and case studies on using different tools. Regarding geolocation, several articles go into the experiences of testing and using AI, PeakVisor, and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 for research purposes or simple geolocation. If you are interested in the subject, they also shared Daily Quizzes by Julia Bayer, whom you can find on Twitter (now X). She tailors these quizzes to train others in geolocation and verification skills. On the Bellingcat website, there are other instructions on using OpenCorporates API, calculating the size of objects in Open-Source Material, or their own Bellingcat OpenStreetMap search Tool.
Another volunteer-based team is that of Trace Labs, an NGO that investigates the cases of missing persons and trains its members in OSINT. They also explain and share trade tools such as Recon-ng, Wikileaker, WhatsMyName, and FinalRecon, but one key difference is their approach to investigating the cases. They host sensitive Capture the Flag events, where members meet and work together in teams to investigate cases obtained from law enforcement agencies. Their work has aided in solving 380 international investigation cases, and one can become a member by joining their Discord Channel. They look for curious, motivated, driven, ethical, and passionate persons.
This UK Registered Charity shares their purpose with the previous team. Locate International aims to solve missing persons and unidentified remains cases while training community volunteers and university students to develop the necessary skills to unravel such mysteries and prepare them for this work. They solve cold cases received from the police and the families of those who disappeared, and they work together with them, universities, and law enforcement agencies to find leads regarding cold cases. Their work helped identify 26 individuals out of the 128 missing person cases they worked on last year, one of which was the Girl in the Afghan Coat. Locate International provides a 32-hour training course and another 118 hours of optional expertise in modules such as OSINT and using DNA and forensics in human identification. They offer such training to individuals or groups of more students through personal training and workshops, respectively.
Stop Child Abuse – Trace an Object is a EUROPOL project aimed at identifying objects from the backgrounds of different child abuse images that contain sexually explicit materials. This project relies on the entries and information of online volunteers to trace information such as the country of origin or general location of the items to help them identify the victims and offenders. The process is time-consuming due to the amounts of submissions in the tens of thousands. Even so, they identified 23 child victims of child sexual abuse and removed them from harm, together with five offenders whom they successfully prosecuted. This work has further motivated the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation to open a similar page. This center also strives to fight any child abuse type, including illegal and harmful content and cyberbullying. To join, one can search the Trace an Object Project and look at the current images available on the webpage.
OSINT for Ukraine
This independent non-profit collective of university students and young professionals dedicates their time to documenting war crimes in Ukraine through Project Mariupol. Ukrainian Students studying abroad founded OSINT for Ukraine with the aid of multinational colleagues from international universities and volunteers. They share knowledge and experience in OSINT investigations, research, and international criminal and humanitarian law. Project Mariupol strives to document war crimes, crimes against humanity, and human rights abuses committed in Ukraine by the Russian military. Examples of such crimes include strikes on civilian objects, filtration camps, direct attacks on civilians, killings of journalists, and many others. They use MapHub to register strikes, Russian detention/prison centers, instances of rape, torture and murders, and culture genocide, among others, on a live-updated map. Besides this map, they conduct investigations, write publications on the same topics, and include resources. One of their resources is a guide to conducting intelligence investigations, and they will soon start an Online OSINT Course. They are active on Instagram and Twitter (X), where they post headlines, press releases, and updates on their investigations.
By now, many of us entered the LiveUAmap at least once, but it is one of the best ways to keep up to date with the new developments in the Russian-Ukraine Crisis. This website also offers detailed maps of other conflict areas, such as Syria, the Caucasus, Kosovo, and other world regions. The map also includes a section for epidemics, but at the time of writing this article, there do not seem to be many updates.
Volunteer in Police Service
As the last example, in the US, volunteer work is accepted to aid in the efforts of law enforcement agencies through their contributions to investigations and various law enforcement functions. Such volunteers undergo thorough application processes, including background checks and training, to ensure their suitability for these vital roles in public safety. The following are four better-known police departments that make use of volunteer work: Pasadena Police Department (California), Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (North California), El Paso County Sheriff’s Department (Colorado), and Denver Police Department (Colorado). For the first, the Pasadena Police Department, volunteers aid in identity theft cases by examining cases, pursuing leads, and providing crucial updates to victims, offering personal attention that officers may not have the time to provide. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the police department relies on volunteers to support various units, including Investigations and Crime Scene Investigations, where they process evidence, maintain cold case libraries, answer tip lines, and conduct research. Volunteers for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department offer unique perspectives on crime solving, including property and financial crimes, missing persons, and cold cases. As with the volunteers from the previous police department, they maintain case libraries, answer tip lines, reconstruct crime scenes, and assist with various investigative duties. Lastly, the Denver Police Department engages volunteers in roles such as the Volunteer Crime Scene Team (VCST). The VCST volunteers play a significant role in processing evidence at crime scenes, including property crimes like car theft. Their extensive training is in forensic evidence collection, and they receive city insurance coverage in exchange for their services.
All these volunteer investigative teams aid law enforcement agencies or fight for causes that strive to answer many hard-to-answer questions and curiosities. These examples show that many of these volunteer teams accept university students to pursue OSINT investigations, or the teams had such students as founders. If not, individuals wanted to help these law enforcement agencies, which usually are overworked and understaffed. The volunteers receive training, skills, and other benefits for their work but prefer to offer their time to help other individuals, families, and communities that could benefit from more help.
For further research or experimentation with the tools presented in this article please check the following links:
1. The Bellingcat MH17 the Open-Source Investigation 2 Years Later Report: https://www.bellingcat.com/app/uploads/2016/07/mh17-two-years-later.pdf
2. The Trace Labs About Page:
3. The Locate International Unidentified People Page: https://locate.international/unidentified-bodies/
4. The EUROPOL Stop Child Abuse – Trace an Object Project page: https://www.europol.europa.eu/stopchildabuse
5. The OSINT for Ukraine Investigation Manual: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/626ef32886867e5389251d32/t/63d119311021093e2bd79e8a/1674647860219/24_01_2023_investigation_manual.pdf
6. The link to the LiveUAmap on the Russian-Ukraine Crisis:
7. More details on the VIPS project in the US: