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What would a feminist open source investigation look like?

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Use of publicly available information to offer radical retellings of violence has powerful democratising potential, both in terms of who contributes to open source investigations and whose stories they centre. At a time when trust in government, media institutions and non-government organisations as fact bearers has been eroded, emergent open source methods have become “an alternative set of truth practices” (Weizman in Open Verification, e-flux, 2019). Yet there are few accepted guidelines on what is legally, morally, or ethically permissible in such investigations. A growing question among practitioners using open source techniques in human rights investigations is not “Can we do this?” but “Should we be doing this?” Here, we set out why intersectional feminist thought should be considered when grappling with the radical possibilities and serious ethical challenges of open source investigations. To this end, we offer practical examples of how an investigator might better situate their findings, show their workings, design for ambiguity, practice equity in attribution, and find new ways to care for themselves and others.

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  1. A 2018 investigation by Syrian Archive and Knack into the shipment from Europe to Syria of chemicals that can be used to produce chemical weapons resulted in the conviction of three Belgian companies that had violated EU sanctions law as well as an internal audit of the Belgian customs system. In 2019, Syrian Archive alongside TRIAL International and the Open Society Justice Initiative filed criminal complaints with prosecutors in Germany and Belgium to request that they open further investigations into the role of European companies in separate shipments of chemicals to Syria via Switzerland, which at the time had not been subject to EU sanctions. The requests were evidenced by open source information collected by the Syrian Archive. To date, the Syrian Archive has collected 3,578,591 digital records, of which 651,322 it has analysed and 8249 it has verified (J Deutch 2020, personal communication, 4 March; Havlik 2019).

  2. Doxxing is searching for and publishing identifying information about someone, typically with malicious intent to threaten, silence or do real harm (Rahman and Ivens 2020).

  3. For the original source of the definition see ‘Social justice impact of archives: A preliminary investigation’ by Wendy M Duff, Flinn, Karen Emily Suurtamm, David A Wallace (Duff et al. 2013).

  4. For a critique of intersectional feminism see ‘Why I’m giving up on intersectional feminism’ by Gordon (2018).

  5. For more on missing data see the work of the Nigerian-American artist and researcher, Mimi Onuoha. (Onuoha 2018).

  6. In the UK in 2019, on average in journalism women earned 11.2% less than men and held 40% of jobs; in programming and software development female professionals earned 6.8% less than male professionals and held only 12% of jobs; in information technology female professionals earned 7.1% less than male professionals and held 18% of jobs. The same cannot be said for law, another field that open source investigators work in. In 2019, female legal professionals held over half of all jobs yet earned on average 16.8% less than their male peers (Smith 2019).

  7. One of the leaders of the discussion around ‘harm reduction’ has been Alexa Koenig at the Human Rights Center at the University of Berkeley, California.

  8. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team notification protocol includes “the compilation, data verification, and review of all case materials prior to scheduling a notification; the completion of an integrated, multidisciplinary identification report in the family’s language; risk assessment of the family receiving a notification, be it health related or threat from other persons; conducting the notification in person with the family; providing psychological and medical support; and explaining the repatriation process, among others”

    (Solís et al. 2016).


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The article is a direct response to an earlier article by Catherine D’Ignazio titled, “What would feminist data visualization look like?”, which became the book, “Data Feminism”, co-authored with Lauren F. Klein. Some of the structure of the original article by D’Ignazio has been retained. The article also draws on ideas discussed in the book chapter on ‘Ethics in Open Source Investigations’ by Zara Rahman and Gabriela Ivens for, Digital Witness: Using Open Source Information for Human Rights Investigation, Documentation, and Accountability. Special thanks to the generosity of our reviewers (in alphabetical order): Leenah Bassouni, Rebecca Echevarria, Alexa Koenig, Martyna Marciniak and Zara Rahman. Many thanks as well to Piper Haywood for copy editing and reviewing. The article was community reviewed by members of the nascent Feminist Open Source Investigations Group. Thanks to Matthew Battles, Jeff Deutch and Robert Trafford for their insights during the research process.

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Correspondence to Sophie Dyer.



A list of the digital guides, protocols and codes of conduct used in the research for this article, including those not given as examples in the main text.

  • Association for Progressive Communications

  • ‘Feminist Principles of The Internet’, 2016


  • The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense)

  • ‘Identification Notifications and Their Applicability to Families of Missing Migrants’, 2016


  • Amnesty International, Citizen Evidence Lab

  • ‘Well-being’, n.d.


  • The Human Rights Center at the University of Berkeley, California

  • ‘International Protocol on Open Source Investigations (Berkeley Protocol)’, forthcoming


  • Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (also known as CLEAR)

  • ‘Equity in Author Order’, 2016


  • ‘Guidelines: Designing Equitable Scientific Tools’, 2017

  • ‘How to Run a Feminist Science Lab Meeting’, 2017


  • DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma

  • ‘Handling Traumatic Imagery: Developing a Standard Operating Procedure’, 2017


  • Data and Society

  • ‘How to Cite Like a Badass Tech Feminist Scholar of Color’, 2019


  • Design Justice Network

  • ‘Design Justice Network Principles’, n.d.


  • The Engine Room

  • ‘Ties That Bind: Organisational Security for Civil Society’, 2018


  • ‘Investigative Web Research’, 2017


  • ‘Technology Tools in Human Rights’, 2017


  • Eyewitness Media Hub

  • ‘Making Secondary Trauma a Primary Issue: A Study of Eyewitness Media and Vicarious Trauma on the Digital Frontline’, n.d.


  • First Draft

  • ‘Journalism and Vicarious Trauma: A Guide for Journalists, Editors and News Organisations’, 2017


  • Global Open Science Hardware

  • ‘GOSH Manifesto’, n.d.


  • ‘GOSH Code of Conduct, 2017’


  • International Organization for Migration

  • ‘Fatal Journeys Volume 3 Part 1: Improving Data on Missing Migrants’, 2017


  • OS4HR

  • ‘Digital Accountability Symposium: Whose Stories Get Told, and by Whom? Representativeness in Open Source Human Rights Investigations’, 2019


  • Privacy International

  • ‘Reclaiming Privacy: A Feminist Manifesto’, 2019

  • ‘From Oppression to Liberation: Reclaiming the Right to Privacy’, 2018

  • Public Lab

  • Public Lab Code of Conduct, 2016


  • Trans*H4CK

  • Trans*H4CK Code of Conduct, n.d.


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Dyer, S., Ivens, G. What would a feminist open source investigation look like?. Digi War 1, 5–17 (2020).

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