If you’re an open-source research newbie, an old-school business researcher has some tips on getting started.
As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Well, they never met my dad. In his toolbox was this stubby, pointy thing, an oft-crossword-clued thing: an awl. For some reason I never understood, this was my dad’s tool of choice. He used it for everything. Apparently, to him, every problem was a thing that needed small holes punched into it.
For me, the stubby, pointy thing in my toolbox — the tool I use for everything — is public records.
Conceptually, public records research hasn’t changed much over the 30 years I’ve spent digging for background information on people and companies, but the methods of storage and access certainly have. In the 1990s, I used a modem and a desktop computer with an external 40-megabyte hard drive. I spent countless hours wading through phonebooks (both the white and yellow pages) to find names, addresses, and phone numbers, then calling those numbers to mine data. Although court documents were still filed on paper, a few legal research services (e.g., Prentice Hall, UCC filings, Lexis Document Services) had emerged, allowing you to “dial in” and request litigation records for further analysis.
Nowadays, it’s a whole lot faster and easier to access all that data — often, without ever leaving your desk. What was good before is now great! And along the way (using Stone Age tools), I learned the meaning and value of what I was finding, and I learned what to do with it.
I became an early adopter and believer in the power of public records.
As a researcher searching for hard-to-find witnesses or trolling court documents for litigation support, you too should understand the power of public records. Let me lay out the case, and then I’ll suggest where you might focus your public record search prowess as you’re getting into the game.
But first, let’s define some terms.
The Language of Intelligence
I used the term public records before, but some folks might refer to this category of data as open source. If you’re extra in-the-know, you might even use the term OSINT.
In the real world of spies and investigations, there are various fun acronyms for intelligence, defined by their sources: HUMINT comes straight from humans, SIGINT (or “signals intelligence”) from satellites and other electronic devices, and OSINT, or open-source intelligence, from publicly available sources. (And if you want to get technical about it, data is a fact or observation, information is the story you tell when you assemble enough data and put it into context, and intelligence tells an even larger story and helps inform decision-making.)
The latter, OSINT, is the researcher’s hammer (or awl, if you’re so inclined). You might be surprised to learn that even in the world of espionage, open sources like local newspaper articles or Facebook posts can be more fruitful than intel gathered using fancier and far more expensive techniques. Intelligence is less about the tech, more about strategy: knowing where to look, how to select essential data from a sea of noise, and what to do with it once you find it.
This has all boomeranged back to the commercial and private sector. So why not take advantage of these methods, too? Also, you’ll get to start throwing around terms like OSINT — which, as I pointed out above, makes you look extra in-the-know.
Five Great Arguments for Using Public Records:
1. You get good bang for your buck.
One of the best things about public record research is that it’s cost-effective. I don’t mean cheap, as in “not valuable.” As you’ll see, it can be highly valuable.
When making deals or investments, or looking at new hires, new clients, or new business partners, the parties involved want things to go smoothly. In a few diligent days of online research, we can usually pull together amazing dossiers covering business affiliations, social media profiles, news, litigation, and related records for our clients. This data may be enough to inform decisions about a hire, an investment, or a merger.
You can’t put a price on that.
2. It’s discreet.
Sometimes, the subjects of my research are well aware of what I’m up to. They may even have provided their basic identifying information so a prospective employer could take a closer look, for example. But in other cases, I might not want the subject knowing about my research — say, when a client hires me to look into a company CEO just before springing an offer on the firm, or in the context of contentious, high-stakes litigation.
The great thing about OSINT is discretion. You can find out all sorts of things through public sources without ever alerting the subject of your investigation to your activities.
3. It’s reliable and legitimate.
When companies have decisions to make about multi-million-dollar investments, executive hires, or “bet the company” litigation, they need supremely reliable data that can be independently validated. Even top executives sometimes lie on resumes, and we know very well that companies aren’t always fully transparent about profits and losses.
You can easily check an executive’s claims about military service, degrees earned from prestigious institutions, or positions held (and the durations of employment) through public records searches. Any good due diligence investigation should include a search for these things. A simple query to the National Student Clearinghouse can verify education. A FOIA request to the military can verify service history and discharge status. A phone call to HR at some companies, or a quick waybackmachine search of company websites, can verify employment history. All of these are available to anyone who knows where to look, what to ask for, and how to submit requests.
And it’s all perfectly legal.
4. Biases are often easier to figure out.
Alert: Many sources have some sort of perspective or agenda, and it’s not always easy to see at first. When you use open sources, these slants don’t disappear, but at least (in most cases) the bias is discernible. With news articles, you generally have some idea from the publication what the slant is, and you can also look into the sources to suss out possible biases.
When you obtain information from lawsuits, you know something about the angle based on the source of the filing: plaintiff or defendant.
I’m not saying you can always see a clear bias in public record research. But because there’s so much more information available to you, it’s often easier to dig deeper and find out more about the players — and what may be motivating them.
5. It can point you toward other useful data.
One of the greatest powers of public records research is that sometimes, it lights the way to many more records that are deeper in hiding. What you discover — or sometimes, what’s pointedly not there — can become a path to further research. The deeper layers you find may validate what you’ve learned, help put things in context, or alert you to other potential issues.
The Final Report
Open means available – records you are legally allowed to view and obtain. Open source intelligence means anything you can get your hands on, anything you can find. It does not mean “completely free.” There are times that you may need to buy the book, pay for the subscription, or cough up fees for FOIA requests.
With so much information available, the bigger question is how to prioritize. What records and information should you be using? How do you know if the information will be cost-effective, reliable, and useful?
Let me suggest two areas where you can get started with public records research, both of which are likely to reap benefits: litigation records and SEC filings. In fact, you can combine these by looking at the litigation disclosures that need to be provided as part a company’s 10-K filing.
First, let’s assume you have a PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) account, which provides public information about all types of commercial litigation. You can extract an amazing quantity of information from the filings in a lawsuit. You’ll find out what happened, what may happen, what has been disclosed, and what may be disclosed about the company of interest.
Now let’s further assume that the company sells stock to the public. Go to its website, look under the investor relations tab, and locate its last 10-K or other periodic filing. These filings are not only about financial analysis or accounting. Read the background section or execute a word search on “reputation risk” or “litigation.” Companies often make it easy for you by including an entire section labeled “risk factors.” Other areas to look for are keywords or sections labeled “internal controls,” “related party transactions,” and the aforementioned “litigation disclosures.” There is often a lot of data available in these categories.
Not all companies are public and have SEC filings, but most have websites, which often disclose a lot of information.
No matter what kind of research you’re hired to do, you’ll probably find some meaningful answers via OSINT — or at the very least, you’ll discover a new trail to follow. Chasing threads from that initial Google search deep into more obscure territory is a chess game and a thrill ride, all in one.
Being a skilled open-source researcher is about discovering the arcane and often little-known record. Harnessing the power of public records is not just knowing what could be out there, but knowing how to find it and use it.
Enjoy your search-and-discover journey! You won’t go wrong if you give it your awl. 😉
A version of this article first appeared on the Stout company blog and has been repurposed with their permission.
About the author:
Robert Gardner likes to think he has been performing research so long, credit reports came on stone tablets. Over a long career, Robert has worked with private investigators, forensic accountants, fraud auditors, litigators and others who need vital information to make decisions and react to unforeseen problems. Robert works in all aspects of business research including due diligence, litigation support, fraud investigations, asset searching, and competitive intelligence. He has made inquiries in nearly every part of the world. Well versed in a variety of data collection methods, especially online and Internet searching, he has transformed public record findings into reports, charts, schedules, timelines, and databases to assist in many situations.