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This week in open-source intelligence (OSINT) news, operational security (OPSEC) plagues Russian troops yet again, when a specific VK post allowed a private sector company to reveal and share Russian troop positions in Ukraine. Criminal organizations are picking up on the benefit of OSINT, including to track their enemies in hiding using GEOINT methods. Social media could be key for end-use monitoring of the billions of dollars in weapons supplies being delivered to Ukraine. And an environmental group tracking illegal fishing is shining light on a Chinese militia posing as fishermen.
Meanwhile domestically, a former senior CIA analyst calls for the need for an OSINT agency, but doubts the U.S. can pivot fast enough to respond to the intelligence community’s (IC) need.
This is the OSINT news of the week:
Soldier location leaks on VKontakte
For years, journalists have used open source data to confirm atrocities, like the chemical attack in Syria, or to dispel propaganda such as the Russiandenials of the Crimea invasion in 2014. But now, private companies like Molfar in Ukraine, are using open-source information to pinpoint positions of soldiers and training facilities, passing that data on to the Ukrainian military and intelligence sector to plan immediate offensive strikes. The company originally specialized in rocket and satellite technology has pivoted toward military intelligence, in part thanks to funding from the Civilian Research and Development Foundation.
A significant portion of the data is being gathered from social media posts by active duty soldiers, despite rules against military cell phone use in place. Operational Security (OpSec) failures have plagued Russian forces since the beginning of the war, and serve as a cautionary tale to military leaders.
“But what is new in Ukraine is how these techniques are being reverse-engineered: not to retrospectively expose atrocities and malfeasance but to proactively kill enemy forces and destroy enemy hardware on the battlefield itself.”— Jack Hewson, Foreign Policy
Gangs tap into OSINT
A gang feud in Montenegro and Serbia pushed a crime boss into hiding. His rivals were able track down and assassinate him using geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) techniques. Based on a few photos forwarded from an associate-turned-spy, the criminal group used reverse image search, satellite imagery, tourist photos and apartment rental listings to narrow their target to a specific villa on a Greek inlet.
Investigators who later cracked the encryption of the SKY ECC messaging app, a favorite among European drug gangs, discovered a wealth of messages planning the hit on the crime organization boss. They discussed how they might get him to share photos, and even used text complaints of being sunburnt to help confirm and narrow in on his location.
“The next important clue came when Zemo forwarded a photo Kožar had taken at a beachside restaurant. Judging from the shape of a small islet that appeared in the background, two members of the group identified the location by searching the internet for photos showing similar views.”— Stevan Dojčinović, OCCRP
Social media for end-use monitoring
The scale and intensity of the war in Ukraine has made it difficult for the U.S. State Department to track and inspect weapons sent to Ukraine to aid their defense efforts. In-person inspections, a protocol outlined in peacetime, presents severe risks to state officials during times of conflict. Instead, Lawfare Blog proposes using the abundance of data available from journalists and citizens on social media to help complete the missing end-use monitoring.
With only 10% of end-use monitoring complete of the $27 billion in security aid sent to Ukrainian forces, digitizing the tracking of high-risk weapons could present an important toolkit for the U.S. In addition to training Ukrainian fighters, incentivizing civilians to send tips could help create oversight on the frontlines. OSINT could be a secure and vital step to preventing U.S. weapons from ending up on the black market.
“The U.S. can further stimulate a new stream of OSINT data by incentivizing individual fighters and civilians to directly share their images and videos of foreign weapons with relevant monitoring agencies.”— Laura Courchesne, Lawfare Blog
Fishing for evidence
A maritime military operation posing as civilian fishermen helps China gather intelligence in disputed waters. The decades-old force is made up of part military and part civilian members, but engages in illegal practices, according to experts. In response, Global Fishing Watch (GFW), an environmental organization, keeps tabs on the militia, tracking them into illegal fishing waters.
GFW uses the data collected from vessel automatic identification systems and their positions to teach machine learning. This technology allows them to track whether boats are carrying cargo or fish. The purpose of GFW may be to investigate illegal and overfishing in international waters, but the open-source information they share openly with law enforcement and intelligence agencies can also be used to identify other unlawful activities.
“This environmental group keeps an eye on the fishing side of China’s Maritime Militia and follows its presence in waters where it should not fish. To accomplish this, GFW uses an array of technologies.”— Alessandro Mascellino, Biometric Update
The value of OSINT
For Kristin Wood, the return on investment value of open-source intelligence is clear. On the CBS News podcast Intelligence Matters, the former senior CIA officer tells host Michael Morell, the U.S. intelligence community has failed to fully utilize open source data as an “intelligence of first resort.” Instead of treating OSINT as a cherry-on-top style of intelligence gathering, OSINT should be prioritized for data gathering, by simply capitalizing on the data already publicly available. Then human intelligence (HUMINT) and other more costly and harder to implement methods can then serve as the “garnish,” as she states.
She also discussed the need for an open-source government agency, something that has been echoed by other former officials. [FIND LINK] But unfortunately, the government is slow moving, something Wood cites as an issue when compared to the need. She called for the need of such an agency quickly, but passing legislation, adjusting budget resources from the IC and Department of Defense (DoD) would take years at minimum, an amount of time that will consist of missing security opportunities by not utilizing OSINT.
“For a human asset, we have to train a case officer and have them trained in language and then send them overseas to find someone to collect the information. Wildly expensive, both in terms of risks to people and time. And so it has the capability now to become our INT, our intelligence tool of first resort, to inform classified systems and information, or frankly, maybe it will prevent us from having to do something we might have had to do otherwise.”— Michael Morell, CBS News
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