Online sources of information

Large volumes of relevant data are available online, even where it relates to opaque countries. Relatively simple use of search engines can provide access to permits, background on companies and identify routes to market. However, ensuring that all possible avenues are exhausted requires the application of good practice in where to look and how to search.

Where initial searches produce huge numbers of results of possible interest, intelligent use of search terms is essential for picking out key information. Searches can be restricted only to results from the website of the relevant government agency, for example, or restricted only to results contained in certain file types of interest, such as Excel or PDF files. Searches can also be worded so that only results containing both a given company name and a specific permit type are shown. Most search engines have ‘advanced search’ forms to help, but it is usually also possible to limit searches more easily using additional text within the normal search box (for example, adding ‘site:[domain name]’ to restrict results to those from that domain).

It is important to bear in mind that search engines are imperfect tools. Some information may be found by one, but not by another, so it may be worthwhile trying a few. Some online information may not be captured by any search engine. Such ‘hidden web’ content includes information accessible only via search forms on relevant websites (such as member information on websites of certification schemes like FSC, or databases of old articles on newspaper websites), information accessible only on registration (such as official government databases of company financial and ownership records), and archives of old web pages. It is also important to remember that information obtained online may be unreliable or out-of-date.

While the main sources of permit or company information will often be the websites of governments, companies, NGOs and certifiers, other online sources are equally or more valuable where other relevant types of information are concerned. For example, if they are used by a company of interest, trade boards such as Alibaba.com can be an indispensable source of information. Where the research is focusing on a particular area or species, it can also be used to identify targets. It can present leads that guide covert investigations into the trade [see Section 9]. Intelligence can also be gained from social media platforms. While this can be related to companies, more commonly it will relate to individuals. Facebook and LinkedIn in particular can be invaluable tools for identifying connections between individuals. By working outwards, connections between companies, trade links and even corruption can also be identified.