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  • Writer's pictureChris Poray

The rise of Open-source Intelligence and its prevalence in the Russo-Ukrainian War


I. Introduction


Brief History & definition of OSINT

Open source intelligence (OSINT) can be traced back to intelligence agencies during the second world war. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) defines OSINT as “Intelligence derived from publicly available information” sources can include everything from Social media posts and local news stories to articles on charity websites.


Brief overview of the Russo-Ukrainian War

Ukraine has long been caught up in a Geo-political battleground between western and eastern political spheres of influence. In the last decade, this has resulted in Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity following breakdowns in talks between Ukraine and the EU. This revolution resulted in the ousting of

Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovych, sparking pro-Russian separatists in Crimea to declare independence from Ukraine, shortly after unmarked Pro-Russian troops seized key strategic buildings in Crimea starting the Russo-Ukrainian war in February 2014. OSINT has played a crucial role in shaping the understanding of the war.


II. Background of OSINT in the conflict


Key players in the OSINT community

OSINT investigations are no longer exclusive to intelligence agencies: there is a diverse array of private and non-profit organisations dedicated to the practice of OSINT. Prominent organisations include The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab and Bellingcat. Bellingcat’s in-depth insights into the conflict have assisted in documenting the buildup of the war, sharing possible war crimes and identifying those involved. This publicity did not go unnoticed and in July 2022, Bellingcat was banned and marked as a security threat in Russia.


Emergence of OSINT in the conflict

OSINT investigators provide the full end to end investigation and result enabling people to make informed conclusions. A few examples of OSINT investigations during the war.

■ Aric Toler tracked the movement of Russian military vehicles to the Southwest of Russia close to the Ukrainian border prior to the large- scale invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022.

■ Simon Ostrovsky was the lead investigator in a VICE documentary where he retraced the digital footprint of a Russian soldier to prove that the unmarked soldiers in Crimea during the annexation were Russian soldiers.


Importance of OSINT in the absence of official information

In today's disinformation age, there's growing scepticism around sources of information, while people have been turning to television news to avoid the misinformation fog of social media. OSINT investigators have been able to share online evidence of human rights abuses to enable people to make informed decisions. As a result of OSINT Investigation identifying possible

war crimes Europol has sent a team of OSINT experts to independently gather information to support investigations led by the ICC and Ukraine into potential war crimes. Though there are complications around using OSINT for criminal prosecutions due to the growing prevalence of deepfakes.


III. Role of OSINT in Understanding the Russo-Ukrainian War


A. Providing valuable insights into the conflict

During any war, accusations of war crimes have been a key theme with both sides being accused of cluster munitions, destruction of cultural landmarks, targeting hospitals and displacement of citizens.


B. Debunking false narratives and propaganda

The war of words is a key narrative. Sun Tzu famously stated: “All warfare is based on deception”, and this war is no exemption. Intelligence practices such as OSINT and geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) can combine insights to counter propaganda. One of the recent debates on both sides has been in the Ukrainian city of Буча (Bucha). Following the liberation of the city, claims were made by Ukrainians that civilians had been targeted and killed during Russian occupation. OSINT & GEOINT has helped counter the Russian claims that this was staged by the Ukrainians.


C. Assisting the international community in understanding the conflict

Tools have been created to record the result of warfare. One of the most prevalent tools has been an interactive map crowd-sourced by the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) and now run in part by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS). This map shares authenticated open source

intelligence and geolocates where the image or incident transpired.


IV. Challenges in OSINT Collection and Analysis


A. Reliability of sources

OSINT sources can be unreliable: they can be subject to bias, manipulation and used as a tool for misinformation depending on the organisation or person using the information as we saw with Bucha. The use of any of the intelligence disciplines alone can lead to incomplete pictures.


B. Bias in reporting

With multiple sides involved in the Russo-Ukrainian war, there will always be bias in reporting depending on the source. An app that has been ever prevalent during the war is Telegram, the social media messaging app has been used by both sides from combatants to leaders sharing propaganda and stories (despite being banned in Russia for two years). Selective reporting has been rife on both sides. When gathering information it's crucial to assess sources' reliability and impartiality.


C. Limited access to information

As more OSINT investigations have been shared and published, the techniques and methods used can become outdated and subject to counter-intelligence operations. Following several stories of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers exposing locations through mobile phone usage, Vladimir Putin

Investigators themselves can also become targets as a result of their work; investigations into the poisonings of Sergei & Yulia Skripal and Alexei Navalney have led to Bellingcat's lead Russia investigator, Christo Grozev, to be placed on Russia's Most Wanted list, he’s also had to flee Vienna his home for 20 years due to safety fears.


V. Conclusion


A. Summary of the impact of OSINT in the Russo-Ukrainian War

OSINT has played a massive role in the Russo-Ukrainian war helping the public understand the picture on the ground from documenting the military buildup around the south western part of Russia to the ongoing documentation of war crimes. Sharing accurate stories from those in the field will help us understand the situation now and in the future.

While OSINT has played a big part in the shaping of the war in Ukraine it is limited in its capabilities when used individually. Combining it with other intelligence disciplines such as GEOINT can help create a larger and more detailed picture of the war.


B. Discussion of future developments in the use of OSINT

OSINT will be supported by emerging technologies. Quantum computing, Artificial intelligence and Machine Learning can all assist with disseminating data into useful information. The rise of Smart Cities (IoT enabled environments) will aid data collection.


C. Final thoughts on the significance of OSINT in the broader context of conflict

reporting and analysis.

OSINT does blur the lines of civilian involvement. Civilians taking pictures of military operations can make them targets, so the ethics of using data and encouraging information gathering should be considered. Despite this I believe that OSINT will continue to play a significant role in providing an understanding in military conflict and addressing wider global issues.


About the writer

Alexander works professionally as a public sector senior management consultant.

Passionate about driving positive change and innovation to the realm of public safety. He has a keen interest in geopolitics, emerging and public interest technology. He is an Executive Committee member at Team Global and has been with the charity for two years.

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