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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is no doubt the top of everyone’s newsfeed today. As the situation unfolds, open-source intelligence (OSINT) researchers from around the world are utilizing everything from publicly available traffic data, to the tracking of narrative-specific keywords in Russian media to interpret the situation and stay up to date. 

As the world watches the situation unfold with bated breath, here are the open-source resources that can give context and updates to what’s happening on the ground and on the web.

Live invasion traffic on Google Maps

Observers of live traffic data on Google Maps saw the first drips of an invasion in progress when they noticed a “traffic jam.” The publicly available traffic information became an incidental tell-tale sign that Russia was on the move when the red high-traffic line could be seen moving from Russia to the Ukrainian border. The news on Twitter was shared before an official announcement came from Putin about what he’s calling Russia’s “special military operation.”

A Middlebury Institute professor’s tweets about the phenomenon of being able to watch a live invasion via traffic app have gone viral. In one, he was quick to point out that it was unlikely the Russian military themselves who were sending data via smart phones, but instead civilians who were being impeded by the movement. The traffic data was then corroborated by satellite imagery for more precise intelligence about the military’s whereabouts. Vice pointed out the same data that was used to give warning of Russia’s movements could just as easily tip the Kremlin off about a Ukrainian offensive or be utilized by U.S. adversaries.

 

“‘I think we were the first people to see the invasion,’ Lewis told Motherboard. ‘And we saw it in a traffic app.’”

— Aaron Gordon and Matthew Gault, Vice

“Ukrainian aggression” claims

Kremlin-owned and -backed news outlets in Russia have been sowing the idea of aggression from Ukraine to Russia, a pre-emptive attempt to justify Russian plans to invade. Putin has been describing the deployed troops as “peacekeeping forces'' being sent to liberate the people of Donetsk and Luhansk. A fabricated video was even exposed by U.S. officials that they say was part of a plot to provide pretext to the invasion.

DFRLab tracked the use of six keywords over 10 Russian outlets. The Russian words for “Ukraine”; an abbreviation for armed forces of Ukraine; “provocation,” “attack,” a word meaning “assault” or “offense” and another word meaning “offense/attack.” The study found a 50% increase of the language in January 2022 compared with previous months. This track shows the Kremlin-backed media’s disinformation campaign to change the narrative of a Russian attack into a needed defense on its homefront.

“As the world watches the situation in Ukraine with keen interest, the escalation of narratives that could be used by Russia as a supposed pretext for a retaliatory kinetic response against Ukraine is cause for concern.”

— Eto Buziashvili and Esteban Ponce de León, Medium

The anonymous investigators tracking Russia’s military

Anonymous investigators are tracking Russia’s military movements on social media sites like TikTok and reporting them through Twitter accounts that have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. Accounts like ELINT News and Coupsure use a combination of citizen-reported TikTok videos and other open-source data such as train schedules and satellite imagery to track movements within Russia’s border.

For researchers, TikTok videos may provide a tip that can then be corroborated by satellite imagery or even streetmap data. An important quality of TikTok is the ability to download videos posted by other users, meaning it’s hard to scrub a video from the internet once it’s been uploaded, because it can be easily saved by anyone else. Despite Russian attempts to hide their actions by moving battalions under cover of night, the social media surveillance via citizenry continues to give insight to researchers around the world, even when it requires further verification via other sources.

“TikTok is a surprisingly useful platform for finding videos of the Russian army's train movements.”

Thomas Eydoux, The Observers

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.