Analyzing the Ages of Signatories to the Harper’s Letter and The Objective’s Counter-letter: A Case Study in OSINT Techniques


In early July, Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” a statement signed by 152 prominent authors decrying a “stifling” intellectual atmosphere and advocating for “the free exchange of information and ideas.” While the Harper’s letter did not mention any examples of the type of speech suppression it condemned, it came after a series of media industry controversies, most notably the resignation of a top New York Times editor over an op-ed advocating for military force on protesters. Predictable waves of support and backlash followed the publication of the piece, with voices from across journalism, academia, and Twitter opining about “the letter.


We crystallized our findings into a basic statistical analysis and comparative visual representation of the ages of each letter’s signatories:

Harper’s Letter Statistics:

Total Signatories: 152

The Objective’s Letter Statistics:

Total Signatories: 164

Age Comparison Graph

Age Comparison Graph Highlighting Rough Generational Demarcations

Source for Generational Demarcations: Pew


Here’s how we collected the data:

  1. Full birth date from independent public source
  2. Birth date from self-reported public source
  3. Age from public records search
  4. Miscellaneous
  • Full name with middle name or initial
  • Other known names
  • Cities and states registered in
  • Possible relatives
  1. Birth Year on Wikipedia, Current Age through Public Records Search
  2. Past Age Benchmark from Graduation Year, Current Age through Public Records Search
  3. Past Age Benchmark from Miscellaneous Public Information, Current Age through Public Records Search
  4. Past Age Benchmark from Article, Current Age through Public Records Search
  5. Self-Reported Past Age Benchmark, Current Age through Public Records Search
  6. Very Specific Result from Public Records Search
  7. Birth Year on Wikipedia, Age through Public Records Search


We couldn’t find the exact age in years in July 2020 of 45 of the 291 named signatories using any of the above methods. For one of them, we figured out their age using a variety of disparate sources.


This case study in using OSINT methods for a relatively simple data analysis project raises a number of legal and ethical questions.



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Tow Center

Tow Center


Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism