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A public flight tracking website nearly crashed under a sudden influx of visitors this week. Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan had millions tuning into the live flight-tracking site to track her military aircraft’s arrival and see if China would take action in response.
In Ukraine, Russian military documents taken by the Ukrainian government revealed radio codes used by active Russian units. Meanwhile in the U.S., the Rand Corporation released a report calling for reform within the intelligence community (IC).
Lastly, Chinese companies are paving the way for criminal operations in Latin America and a professional researcher has search advice for journalists and OSINT practitioners. These are the OSINT news stories of the week:
Millions tracked Pelosi's flight to Taiwan
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s surprise visit to Taiwan prompted millions to pull up Flightradar24, a live flight-tracking site. The sudden surge of users on the site almost overwhelmed the servers. Developers created a waiting room to prevent it from crashing, according to BuzzFeed News. Pelosi is the highest ranking U.S. politician to visit Taiwan in 25 years. The visit rankled China, which began live-fire military exercises close to Taiwan following the Speaker’s visit amid increased tensions with the west over China’s territorial claims.
According to Politico, Biden disapproved of the trip due to security concerns. However, Pelosi tweeted the trip “honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy.” China’s Ministry of Foerign Affairs issued a statement citing the trip as having “a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations…” Many speculated about whether they would take military action in response, but the flight and trip proceeded safely.
"An unprecedented, sustained interest in this particular flight led to extremely heavy load on Flightradar24 infrastructure," Petchenik said. "Our teams immediately began efforts to maintain the stability of our services." — Julia Reinstein, BuzzFeed News
Russia’s radio codes
A Ukrainian government site, the National Resistance Center, published captured Russian military documents including maps, glossaries and communication details.. Outlined within the glossaries were radio codes and which units used them. The documents help decode Russian military communication, particularly among units still active in the region the documents were captured in.
The shorthand and code words included descriptions for phrases translated as “open fire,” “cease fire,” “deploy aerosol cover,” “open fire using TOS system,” “carry out the destruction of bridge within area,” and others. The shorthand could prove temporarily helpful in deciphering communication. While the Russian military is probably aware of the leaks, the code words help Ukrainians have a better understanding of how their communication is based and could help decipher future codes as well.
They also show how Russians intend to make situation reports using misleading synonyms, like combat situational report is masked as a simple weather report — Maris, Numbers Stations
Optimizing Google searches
A change in Google’s search algorithm has made the use of quotation marks in Google searches, a strategy often employed by journalists, moot. Henk van Ess, an online research expert, warns journalists that Google tends to ignore the quoted phrases now in preference for its own biases. It favors popular terms to precise terms.
In a webinar for Global Investigative Journalist Network, van Ess coached journalists on using more precise search terms and Google “dorks” to increase helpful results. Using the “minus” sign to exclude the sites or terms that come up first, like a famous person or popular site, can help journalists get past a flood of unhelpful links. Other tips like trying keywords with “inurl” will pull up Facebook groups or other links that would normally be hidden. When looking for a particular photo, typing the colors that appear can help Google pull it up.
A simple example: If you’re searching for a map, don’t use the term “map,” but, rather, a word more likely to appear on any map – like “scale.” — Rowan Philp, Global Investigative Journalism Network
China’s effect on Latin America
A recent surge of Chinese companies operating in Latin America and China’s shift to removing loans to the region are helping finance more Chinese crime operations. Drug production, illicit trade, money laundering and corruption are among industries likely to be affected by the over-reliance on Beijing industries, according to Militant Wire. Drug production, in particular, is the fastest-growing business of China’s in the region. Following the fentanyl market, synthetic opioids such as nitazenes are creating a new market. The derivative is 20 times more potent than fentanyl.
A recent report in Brazil found over $20 million had been laundered via Chinese companies to bank accounts in the U.S. and China. Chinese criminal cells are taking market share from existing cartels due to the ease of transferring money. Chinese tobacco brands have also been illegally flooding the area. Anti-U.S. sentiments in many Latin American countries could lead to a higher risk of large-scale trade with China, a benefit for Chinese illicit activity in the region.
Extortion, money laundering through front firms, and smuggling are already increasing, posing a severe threat to the population's safety in the region. — Maria Zuppello, Militant Wire
Reform within the IC
A new report from RAND Corporation calls for “substantive change” in order to strengthen intelligence in the U.S. Key findings of the report calls the intelligence community’s (IC) role “failing” to advise and protect U.S. national security interests. It cites the slow reaction to disinformation campaigns from both China and Russia in conjunction to COVID-19, as well as lagging responses to attacks on cyber infrastructure and neglected domestic threats.
In reference to these challenges, the report cites the inadequate adoption of OSINT as one of its key shortfalls. In addition, it goes on to cite the potential challenges posed by the influence of political bias on intelligence assessments.. The report calls for a new OSINT analysis component to be created to help the IC improve their open source collection and dissemination capabilities.
This exploratory study sought to address these needs by proposing Big Ideas—game-changing ideas that, while bold and audacious, are also implementable without requiring major intelligence reform. — Winbaum, et. al., Rand Corporation
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