Boyhood friends find
recipe for powerful
By John L. Guerra
Editor, GRC & Fraud Software Journal
In 2011 Chris Randall, a real estate and technology investor, bumped into Chad Killian, the CEO of a Pittsburgh-based background screening company.
Chad was an old family friend; Chris had not seen each other in a long time and as they caught up the conversation gravitated to business opportunities. The two arranged a follow-up meeting at Randall’s office in Wexford, Pa. At that meeting, Chad and Randall got down to brass tacks.
“Chad and I discussed how his company was receiving inquiries about how to incorporate Social Media data into the background screening process,” Randall says. “As Chad began to look into this problem, he was unable to find data providers or even subject matter experts. After researching the market, we found there was a need to be fulfilled.”
Killian’s visit changed the direction of both men’s professional lives. Randall and Killian’s meeting led to the launch of Social Media Information, LLC (SMI), a company on the leading edge of Social Open Source Intelligence (SOSINT) investigations.
Killian now serves on the SMI board of directors but maintains his hold on the helm of Consumer Reporting Agency.
Background screening ain't what it used to be
“The background screening industry was a rear-view industry that was used to querying structured databases,” says Randall, CEO of SMI. “The information you got was totally historic and the value of the information wasn’t all that great. “Social Media and open source intelligence was an expanding searchable data source that few companies had yet been able to automate with immediately actionable data,” Randall says.
SOSINT investigations cull government agency websites and social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Google +, LinkedIn and other such sites around the world where otherwise private individuals post messages, photos, video and other data on the public internet.
The two decided to create SMI with the mission to provide actionable data from Social Media for investigators and law firms looking for thorough investigative and due diligence tools.
“We came out of pocket with some seed funding, did a lot of market research and defined the kind of product we wanted to build. SMI’s software developers went to work creating a proprietary search engine and analytics platform that could quickly grab and sort information based on specific parameters.”
Into the deep web
SMI’s software also queries the index web and the deep web - the part of the World Wide Web that is not discoverable by means of standard search engines, including robot-protected or dynamic pages and encrypted networks.
By the end of 2011, we knew we had a good working prototype,” Randall said. “We got a good, fully automated product that functioned better than traditional search engines and could screen capture information and data, and we knew we had what we were looking for. We decided to fund it further, joined by my brother Adam Randall and launched the company.”
The company also began hiring its own analysts to help clients who sought insight into how to weigh various facts in a subject’s background. Other clients take the raw data and have their own analysts take a crack at it. Still other companies rely on SMI to train them in SOSINT analysis and to provide other support.
“Our analysts have intelligence degrees or extensive experience in online social research,” Randall says. “They are recent college graduates and they understand social media. They enjoy the work and are familiar with querying and getting data from the Internet.”
SMI SOSINT analyst Kevin Burant, who joined the company in 2015, is a case in point. He has experience in large data collection, research and analysis, having studied intelligence and law enforcement investigation at Mercyhurst University.
Subscription or service
SMI and other social media investigation companies – such as WebPreserver, X1 Social Discovery, Thomson Reuters Clear Online Investigation, and Prism – sell either the software or provide full-service investigations for clients. Their customers rely on social media data in all kinds of ways: to ferret out risky job applicants, to identify possible partner companies whose work product or solutions suffer from “bad press” -- or to cull information about their customers for targeted marketing.
“We have two main products, First, the Deep Report, which runs $150 dollars, includes all social media networks,” says JoEllen Marsh, SMI’s product development and operations manager. “It comprehensively searches as much as possible on the Internet, including local, county, state and federal court records – anything that’s available on the internet.”
The company promises to provide complete social reporting in two days.
“Our best success is in the legal market,” Marsh says. “We have a lot of private investigators using our products for fraud cases, insurance cases and disability cases.”
The second product, the Social Report, is $75 and focuses only on social media activity. “It sees what’s out there on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and similar platforms,” Marsh says.
The company in late summer released its Export product, which freezes social media profiles and other websites as searchable, offline PDFs that can be stored with the rest of an investigator's case files. The profiles are printable, time stamped, searchable with active hyperlinks and admissible in court.
The amount of information in a social media search can be vexing, especially when the information culled is about a company or a public figure. SMI captures screen shots, text, videos and other data of any subject and compiles it into one discovery, reporting, and monitoring platform.
“We try to include everything we can about a person,” she says. “We find business and address records as far back as we can. Some of our reports are several hundred pages long. If we get a celebrity, we could not possibly include every single page about that person. That’s where analyzing the data and putting together a concise report comes in.”
Investigators probing insurance fraud and other crimes; sports agents managing a client’s public persona; and lawyers on both sides of a case rely on open source intelligence for e-discovery and litigation support. Because social media sites reveal much about the thinking of prospective jurors, lawyers can use the information to pose voir dire.
Helping the rich and famous
Anyone in the world can be vetted. The same technology that provides us with instant visual, audio and digital social communication also makes it possible for anyone to follow the bread crumbs left behind by average people.
But if you're a well-known actor or the high-profile executive at an IT firm, what Twitter and Facebook are saying about you matters. Where you party, the little scrapes, the misunderstandings - all end up on social media.
SMI helps not only reputation-rich companies screen executive candidates; it also helps professional sports teams know the character of incoming athletes.
"This is not done for punitive reasons, but intelligence purposes," Randall says, refusing to break the anonymity of clients. "Sports teams need to know the level of risk involved in recruiting million-dollar athletes. The word was out that one athlete was being charged with criminal activity. We were hired to capture some web-based data that either supported or denied that. Players are doing certain things all the time; background screenings on sports figures is done all the time."
A public figure engaged in a divorce approached Randall because nasty things were being said about him on social media. The court ordered the postings to stop. The public figure who was being slandered showed SMI the court order, which included a command that no one could alter existing posts.
"We were hired to monitor the site to ensure they complied with the court order and to screen capture any more instances of slander that was posted after the order was given and to notify the court of non-compliance."
SMI is on the edge of a growing legal landscape in the handling of social media and other SOSINT evidence - how it is collected, how it must be stored and presented in court. The legal landscape - ediscovery, what is admissible, what constitutes proof - is being tested all the time.
"We love this space and are excited to be involved with the growing use of SOSINT in business, law and entertainment," Randall says. "We are here to stay."