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This week in open-source intelligence (OSINT) news, researchers at Middlebury Institute have identified a balloon launch base in a Chinese island territory. Meanwhile, Bellingcat researchers are focusing on their role as evidential archivists in the Russia/Ukraine war in hopes of eventual war crimes prosecutions in the International Criminal Court. The EU’s law enforcement training agency rolls out new recommendations for using AI for cross-border information sharing, and Entrepreneur suggests OSINT as a leg up in the job market.

This is the OSINT news of the week:

The balloon base

New satellite imagery has pinpointed the likely Chinese spy balloon launch base. The facilities were discovered by researchers at Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The location on Hainan Island, a province of the Southern coast of China in the South China Sea, was also identified by the Washington Post as a potential launchpad, noting its ideal location for spying on U.S. Pacific bases.

The facility features key similarities to another balloon launch site near the Chinese border with Mongolia. Analysts have found visible evidence of access restrictions, which has led to the conclusion that the facility is likely linked to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The balloon shot down over the Atlantic Ocean is at least the fourth time a spy balloon has violated U.S. airspace, with at least three briefer occurrences taking place over the past few years.

“Beijing is, not surprisingly, tight-lipped about its alleged balloon espionage program, but researchers like MIIS’s Eli Hayes have scoured Chinese-language academic literature and state propaganda to find clues about how academics there think and talk about known airship and balloon programs.”

— Adam Rawnsley, Rolling Stone

Archivists in pursuit of justice

Many open-source intelligence practitioners know of the renowned work of Bellingcat — their investigative journalism and geolocation guides are legendary in the field. But the organization plays another critical role as archivists of digital evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. 

Bellingcat soared into the public consciousness from its origin as a personal blog when it published scoops on the chemical weapons used in Syria and other major world events. With new funding sources came a nonprofit with a new mission: to archive evidence that could be used in international criminal court. The high standard of what is admissible can be limiting for the prosecution of war crimes. Bellingcat works to debunk and verify digital evidence and store it for later use.

For Ukraine, Bellingcat has started a database of “living documents.” The incidents of civilian harm and casualty are mapped and logged with contextual evidence by the Bellingcat team. The methodology has been tested in mock hearings to ensure it will hold up in court.

“At the time of this writing, Bellingcat’s TimeMap documents 1,094 examples of bombings, shootings and airstrikes and places them in time and space. Up to 190 of the events documented are attacks against schools, cultural sites and healthcare facilities.”

— Nick Waters, Reuters Institute

OSINT for business

The value of open-source intelligence techniques aren’t just limited to government intelligence agencies and cybersecurity experts. The tradecraft used can help various markets by learning to collect data from publicly available sources. By learning open-source techniques like Google dorking, web scraping, social media monitoring and public records access, workers can gain market intelligence and track business reputation. 

The information gained through OSINT can be insightful to business practices, such as price fluctuation, customer complaints and industry trends. It can help inform launch and hiring strategies, and to get ahead of negative brand image situations.

“In addition, it provides a means for companies to keep a close eye on the actions of their competitors, such as keeping tabs on the introduction of new products, observing pricing tactics and scrutinizing customer feedback.”

— Devan Leos, Entrepreneur

AI for OSINT challenges

A recent research paper describes how artificial intelligence (AI) can assist open-source law enforcement investigators when looking into fraud and other crimes in complex, cross-border investigations. The paper published by the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement and Training (CEPOL) details the need for cross-border information sharing in Europe.

Sharing evidence and frameworks could help root out identity theft, find dangerous individuals and help prevent crime across Europe. Formerly, OSINT investigations were limited to personnel with strong IT skills. The new approach hopes to train officers so they can operate AI systems to achieve this approach.

“The newly introduced Person-Centric OSINT approach aims to solve these challenges by providing detectives and investigators with the necessary IT skills to operate AI systems within a more structured interoperability framework.”

— Amr el Rahwan, CEPOL

Every other week, we collect OSINT news from around the world. We continue to keep a close watch on Russia's war in Ukraine, especially on Twitter. We’re also gathering information on cyberthreats, federal intelligence strategies and much more. Find us on Twitter and share the OSINT news you’re keeping up with.

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