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As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to intensify, the role of open-source intelligence is proving critical to gaining insight into Russian tactics and raising public awareness of the events unfolding. War in a social media age means an abundance of information. Everyone from government analysts to teachers in their off hours are spending time parsing through information on Twitter, TikTok, Google Maps and other sources. The results of these online investigations have the power to affect the outcome of a continued conflict. Below is the latest on what is being shared and what to expect.

Spotting disinformation on the web

As analysts refresh their news feeds to get the latest on the war in Ukraine, disinformation has become a powerful tool in Russia’s arsenal. Now researchers are catching onto the strategy. A video of a girl yelling at a soldier recently went viral, which turned out to be ten-years-old and a depiction of a Palestinian girl and Israeli soldier, being posted as a way to win support for Ukrainians abroad. With the ease of distribution made available by social media and the web, distinguishing legitimate info from disinformation is key.

According to Bellingcat, a group specializing in OSINT, there are four M’s of disinformation tactics online– misdate, misrepresent, mislocate and modify. The first three are exemplified in the video mentioned above, it is being misrepresented for a conflict in a different time and place. Russia has also been deploying old videos, often to create animosity toward Ukraine for supposed attacks. The last M is when photos and videos are actually manipulated, whether by staging scenes or digital alteration. Using open-source tools to dissect what you’re seeing, reverse image searching, using metadata and keeping an eye out for deep fakes are all essential to determining real vs. false information.

“Sometimes basic skepticism can go a long way. With a video, if you can’t find any source beyond the video saying that such an incident occurred, there’s very good reason to assume it’s false.”

— Omer Benjakob, Haaretz

Twitter to provide dark web support

Twitter is launching a version of its site to be available on Tor (the Onion Router). The move is to counter Russia’s attempts to block or limit access to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The Tor browser allows users to bypass restrictions and retain anonymity. 

While many associate the dark web with illicit activities such as the drug trade, another key function of the obfuscated browser is to allow dissidents in authoritarian countries safe access to the web. Twitter’s head engineer of the Tor Project announced the launch on Tuesday, March 8 via tweet. The announcement follows other media companies who have made their sites available on the dark web, including Facebook and the BBC.

“Russia has broadened its efforts to control the spread of information on the invasion of Ukraine and to move against independent news sources and social media websites.”

— Guardian staff and agencies, The Guardian

The amateur analysts watching Ukraine

Many amateur intelligence sleuths who began their intelligence collection and publication efforts during civil war in Syria have begun delving into open-source information coming from Ukraine. One such researcher is Alex McKeever, who has spent the last six years analyzing videos and posts from social media to learn more about conflicts. With the invasion of Ukraine came a new crop of volunteer citizens ready to lend their various expertise to the efforts in Ukraine. 

Analyzing videos of conflict, McKeever was able to use Google’s Street View to identify the location of an attack and tweet the coordinates. Researchers like McKeever can also identify missiles based on shrapnel or vet a video to see if it has been manipulated or misconstrued. The amount of data makes the contribution of the online community valuable by taking over what government analysts may not be able to get to quickly. The work of do-it-yourself practitioners can be ethically questionable at times. Some over-eager internet users may misidentify and expose innocent people or leak private information. But there are ethical ways of contributing to the effort and with the slew of information available, analysts can use all the help they can get.

“OSINT findings proved vital in validating the Biden administration’s claims throughout February that an attack was imminent, and they informed subsequent coverage by traditional print and broadcast outlets.”

— Jeff Wise, Inteligencer

U.S. declassification of info ‘effective’

The CIA director called the efforts of U.S. analysts to declassify information in a counter campaign to Russia’s disinformation, “effective.” The Kremlin had claimed attacks by Ukraine as a pretext for its eventual invasion, one particular campaign had been cut off and announced by the U.S. before it was set in motion. Part of the disclosure included the location of Russian troops before the invasion. 

The decision to declassify has been a sometimes scrutinized one. Giving up information can also expose how they received that information, which could put analysts and sources at risk. But in the case of Russia, providing tips has helped Ukraine prepare and caused Russia to fumble when outed. 

“‘It causes them to investigate the cause of the disclosure, forcing them to spend time on something other than attacking us.’ ”

— Mark Pomerlau, Fed Scoop

The invasion of Ukraine shows importance of OSINT

Russia’s invasion has shown more than ever the importance of open-source intelligence. Twitter, Tiktok, Telegram and other social media platforms are providing key data when analyzed by researchers. The Center for Strategic and International Studies released a report in January highlighting the potential of OSINT. Analysts aren’t the only ones tapping into OSINT. Traditional media companies searching for the latest information are also beginning to turn to open sources for faster information. 

Utilizing OSINT has become a necessary move for the intelligence community (IC) to stay up to date. Firms like Bellingcat have proven the depth of what can be discovered using open-source or publicly available information. While there remains a need for ethical collection and process, from both researchers as well as the online platforms where much of the open-source info is published (Google Maps has turned off traffic information for the safety of citizens), what can be discovered is vital. 

“But the IC has been slow to incorporate OSINT into its intelligence products, for a number of reasons, and is lagging behind other countries—particularly China—in tapping into the vast oceans of publicly available information, the report noted. ”

— Patience Wait, Nextgov

As events unfold in Ukraine, open-source researchers around the world are tracking military, media and cultural movements on the ground and online. OSINT is providing live updates, even as Ukrainians themselves upload videos of attacks on TikTok and Reddit. This open-source data sometimes requires further verification but can help give intelligence officials real-time information during a political and humanitarian crisis.

To keep up to date on the latest OSINT and cybersecurity news, visit the Authentic8 blog

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