The Rise of Open Source Intelligence in Ukraine

Even before Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operation” in the early hours of February 24 Moscow time, researchers from the US Middlebury University’s non-proliferation program discovered that Russian troops had abandoned their camps near Ukraine’s borders. Their source was not a drone located at high altitude, a military satellite or spies on the ground, but rather … Google Maps, Google’s mapping and navigation service.

Whether soldiers turned on their phones or civilians stuck in their car behind a convoy, Google’s automatic tools found a traffic jam near the E105 highway connecting Russia and Ukraine. For the researchers, who had been waiting for several weeks, the traffic jam near the Russian military camp at 3:15 in the morning could only mean one thing: the tanks had moved onto the road. “Someone Moves” warned Professor Geoffrey Lewis on Twitter.

Google Maps traffic data analysis is an example of open source intelligence (OSINT or open source intelligence). The concept is not new—in 1941 the United States created the Foreign Broadcast Watch Service to monitor Axis radio propaganda—but with modern technology it takes on a whole new meaning.

Potential intelligence sources eventually emerged from the radio reports of German propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels during World War II. “Everyone has phones and they take pictures. Everyone can now be considered an agent who collects intelligence,” explains the founder of the intelligence company IntSight Global and former RAF General Sean Corbett in a podcast.

This democratization is a boon for intelligence professionals, said Craig Nazareth, a University of Arizona professor in the field. “While it took the CIA years to build a network of informants on the ground, the agency now has instant access to an incredible amount of information,” he said in an interview. News.

This new dynamic, benefiting traditional intelligence services, has led to the emergence of a truly open intelligence community in which amateur analysts from all over the world collaborate. This OSINT community, which has already proven itself in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, has moved to high speed with the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine.

Multiplication of sources

Google Maps is just one of many sources analyzed by those trying to document the Russian operation. Traffic webcams, still available online at the time of this writing, are used to confirm the arrival of military convoys seen on Google maps or satellite imagery, for example. Aerial surveillance tools commonly used by aviation enthusiasts, such as the FlightAware mobile app, can detect the presence of Russian or Western aircraft around Ukraine, even if these tools do not distinguish between bombers and jets. FlightAware also celebrated February 27 Aeroflot aircraft passing (Moscow airline) over Canada after Canada closed its airspace to Russian aircraft.

Similar boat tools such as the VesselFinder are also used to follow the movement of the yacht owned by Russian oligarchs.

The OSINT community is also busy rebroadcasting and sorting, through various tools, images and videos posted on social networks such as Twitter and TikTok, or on the Telegram messaging service, which is especially popular in Ukraine. The authenticity of these documents, both those that benefit Ukraine and those that flatter Russia, is also being verified, for example, to make sure the photos of the burnt armored car were not taken in a previous conflict.

Screenshot: Maxim Johnson / Editing: News

What to do with all this data?

Although many people who collaborate with the OSINT community do so in the hope of helping the Ukrainian military, it is currently difficult to confirm that the information collected is being used by the local military. Craig Nazareth thinks so. “It brings them a different point of view in addition to what they already have, and it opens their eyes where there are none,” the researcher notes.

Military analysts will be able to use this information from open sources for a long time to come thanks to the availability of tools that collect and systematize all data.

Bellingcat, an international group of independent researchers and investigators, for example, maintains a map of Ukraine that accurately shows Russian troop movements, shelling, audible gunshots, Russian and Ukrainian military casualties, and damage to infrastructure. It records the GPS coordinates and time of each photo, video and observation, allowing you to follow the progress of operations. Non-Governmental Organizations Advise including this information to gather evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, a British daily newspaper told us this week. The keeper.

The efforts of the OSINT community also benefit the media, who use this information to improve their coverage and increase their sources. “I used to often scream in front of my TV because the journalists who covered the war made important mistakes during conflicts compared to what actually happened on the ground. Clearly, the mainstream media is much better informed this time around,” said former General Sean Corbett.

According to former head of British intelligence Alex Younger, the work of independent investigators also adds credibility to official Western intelligence. “Now there is information from open sources to monitor and confirm what is being said,” he explained at an online conference shortly before the invasion.

According to Christian Hymet, an analyst at the British intelligence company Janes, the quantity and quality of information from open sources has also accelerated the reaction not only of the media, but also of governments and NGOs. “It gives you the confidence to react faster because the picture of the situation becomes clearer than before,” he said in the podcast.

In an interview, Craig Nazareth of the University of Arizona adds: “Watching the aftermath of the war in real time is having an impact on politics in Europe. »

double edged weapon

However, the publication of information from open sources is a double-edged sword. The Ukrainian military can monitor the Russian advance, but the latter can also use their disinformation machine to confuse the cards and try to demotivate the Ukrainian population with images that give the occupiers a military advantage.

And then, the same tools are available for Russia. This is what prompted Google to remove information about traffic jams from the map of Ukraine. Not only Russians, but also the Ukrainian military can show traffic jams on Google Maps in the middle of the night.

IN post on twitterJohn Scott-Railton, a researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, also suggested that companies and mobile apps that collect geolocation data from their users in Ukraine deactivate these features so that Moscow does not become a service — the Kremlin can learn, for example, the location of military training camps.

The usefulness of open-source intelligence to Russia may explain why the Russian military does not seem to be targeting Ukraine’s internet infrastructure at this time. Shutting down the Internet in Ukraine without the cooperation of the operators would be difficult, but not impossible if it became a priority for the Russian army.

Much has been written about the role of television in the outcome of the Vietnam War.. An equally important revolution seems to be unfolding right now before our very eyes in Ukraine.

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