There have been many interesting developments in how we can analyze Internet-based photos using open-source methods. Several of the best tools are largely unknown or there are methods of using those tools that also go largely unnoticed. This is especially true when tools are not specifically meant for open-source research.
It is also worth noting that there are other articles on this subject but as time passes, many of the tools highlighted only a few months ago have either disappeared or are no longer free. Therefore, this article should also be considered partly as a “literature review” highlighting other guides that are still relevant (though this is certainly not an exhaustive review).
To that end, this article addresses means of geolocating or narrowing down the possible locations of a photo by using tools to search background geography or identifying plants in the photo and where they tend to exist.
We will also address those landmarks and locations with similar backgrounds to the photos can be searched. Interestingly, Bing has a tool that lets you search for all sorts of things in a photo beyond the location. For example, this tool can identify a pair of shoes and let you know how much they cost, which naturally reflects on the person wearing those shoes.
We will highlight how some known tools (like google reverse image search) can be much more effective when used in conjunction with other open-source tools.
Finally, we will learn how to make use of barcodes that are visible in photos.
With that all said, let’s begin with my favorite new tool below.
Leibniz Information Center (tib.eu/en) has created an amazing tool for auto-estimating the location of a photo by analyzing features in the background, primarily focusing on geology and geography.
It will take this photo for example :
And guess possible locations in the world, like this :
In a similar vein, Bing.com has set up a tool for identifying specific things in a photo, ranging from shoes to landmarks. This is particularly useful when trying to identify plants.
The sun calculator will let you research the Sun and calculate shadows in a photo based on location, date and time. It will also tell you the length and direction of an object’s shadow at that time and place. This was previously identified by Tools For Reporters (https://toolsforreporters.com/2022/02/16/another-tool-for-fact-checking-the-sun/).
See the example below for a location in Spain on April 2nd, 2022 :
This tool provides an in-depth account for any place on any date. It provides an hour-by-hour listing of the cloudiness, temperature, wind speed/direction, etc. The idea is that if a photo purports to be from a specific location you can check if the weather in the photo matches in recorded weather.
Sometimes when researching a photo you find a social media account that you think might be the person in the photo. That is where this tool comes in handy because it can compare the photos from your original picture and the social media account and give you a likelihood if they are the same person.
Reverse Image Searches – (yandex, google, bing, and others)
The major search engines have the ability to search a photo for others that are like it, or the same photo that is somewhere else on the Internet. While it is good to search for the same photo existing elsewhere. For a profile photo, one can search for the person or the background location to find more information.
A quick note about the basics of doing a reverse image search. A reverse image search refers to using a search engine to search for a specific image or similar ones on the internet. Most search engines will include that function and all you have to do is right click on a photo, copy, and paste it into a website or search engine’s reverse image search function. It is often easier to right click and choose “copy image url”. Most image search functions will also allow you to input an image url for searching as well.
Bellingcat.com created a great guide (click here to read it) comparing the capabilities of different sites and concluded that Yandex is the best. Other sources agree with this assessment.
Yandex has a function for cropping the photo you search so you can focus your search on something specific, such as the face of your person of interest, rather than their background. Cropping a photo to search specifically for a face avoids the trap where some image searches will search for people wearing the same color shirt, instead of focusing on the person’s face.
You should also consider removing the background altogether from a photo, to focus on the object or person of interest. Alternatively you can remove the person from the photo and search the background to determine the location or similar locations.
To this end, several websites offer different ways to alter the photo. Photoscissors.com and remove.bg will let you completely remove a background to heighten the focus on a person or object.
Remove the Foreground
Additionally, there are several online tools that can help you remove people in the foreground or anything else in the photo so that you can focus your search on something else. Sometimes you want to search the background or just part of it.
There are two great examples of how this method can be useful. First, Jane Myer of the New Yorker was able to find the background in one photo to identify the original, see below :
From Jane Myer’s Twitter account – https://twitter.com/JaneMayerNYer/status/1057371849439502338
Here is another great example, this one from bellingcat. By blurring out the person in this photo, it was possible to find that the person here…
Bellingcat.com (from the aforementioned guide)
The following is a list of just some of the available tools that you can use for this purpose:
An article from Business Insider showing barcodes on body armor :
A photo that shows an ID badge or retail product with a barcode visible can be used to obtain useful information.
Barcodes can be read from photos posted online by using one of the numerous websites (such as Online Barcode Reader by InLite). These sites require that you choose what kind of barcode you want read and then upload a photo with the barcode. Barcodes usually use known patterns for encoding information such as these below :
examples of barcode patterns (https://www.inliteresearch.com/)
The next question is what to do with the encoded information?
If the barcode is on an ID, it may translate to a random number. This is unfortunate because the number is often an account that is only useful if you have access to the relevant associated database, which is probably private.
Barcodes from Drivers Licenses, Military, and Various Other IDs
Alternatively, the barcode may translate directly into identifying information about the ID holder. This is the case with U.S. drivers licenses, military, and other IDs. With a U.S. drivers license the barcode will provide you personal information about the license holder (name, address, date of birth, physical description) and about the license itself (date of issue, date of expiration).
Additionally, according to InLite, checking information is often encoded into “MICR lines” that includes data about financial accounts and/or transactions.
For a retail product, the barcode can be used to look up the manufacturer and a basic description about the product. The barcodes for retail products represent identification numbers that can be looked up in public databases.
So if a product’s barcode is visible in a photo a researcher can use something like InLite to lookup what number the barcode represents and then go to a site like Barcodelookup.com to lookup the number itself.
According to Barcodelookup.com,
“A product’s packaging may not tell you everything you need to know about that product — where it comes from, how well it works or how it’s priced at other stores. Enter any product’s UPC, EAN or ISBN code into Barcode Lookup, and find all kinds of information about the item including its manufacturer, name, description, photos and customer reviews. We even show you links to online stores where you can buy the same item.”
This is often used to identify the general location of a photo based on the location of the manufacturer or retailer. This may not seem very useful in and of itself, but I believe it is worth noting any information we can find because random information will often become useful later on in conjunction with a new discovery.
Anyhow, that’s all, good luck searching!