How Open Source Intelligence Became the World’s Window Into the Ukraine Invasion

A grainy phone videoTweeted widely by Twitter, Thursday morning’s tweet revealed that black smoke billowed from the burning car on the asphalt at what seems to be an military airstrip. You can hear the heavy breathing of the man who is holding the camera, as well as the crackling of rubble underfoot and broken glass.

Thomas van Linge, 25, a Dutch citizen, uploaded the video to Twitter after it was shared via a Ukrainian Telegram channel. The video, van Linge wrote online, depicted “utter destruction” after an explosion at the military airfield in Lutsk, western Ukraine, just 90 kilometers away from the border with Poland. It appeared to be some of the day’s first evidence that the Russian assault on Ukraine was confined not just to the country’s south and east, but military targets across the country, even those just miles away from a border with a NATO member-state.
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Van Linge shared another video on Thursday morning that showed Russian military vehicles moving northwards into Ukraine via Crimea. Van Linge shared another video on Thursday morning that showed Russian military vehicles advancing north into Ukraine from Crimea. This footage was captured by a CCTV camera with public access, which was located along a peninsula road.

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine began in the morning hours. Van Linge was among hundreds of OSINT researchers who scanned the thousands of videos. The acronym is short for “open source intelligence,” a field of social media analysis that over the last decade has emerged from obscurity into a central feature of modern war reporting, as social media and smartphone access have allowed videos, photos, and other data from war-zones around the world to proliferate. Together, via a loosely-organized community mostly based on Twitter, these researchers work together to verify the location of videos, piecing together the first public details of a rapidly-changing situation on the front line of Europe’s most volatile military conflict in nearly eight decades. They share the evidence online in real-time with the rest of the world. This rivals established newsrooms as well as defense analysts, who are trying to uncover what’s happening on the ground.

“On Twitter, there’s a lot of cooperation. People share footage, geolocate it, try to identify the types of tanks, armed vehicles, that kind of stuff,” van Linge said in an interview on Thursday morning. “Everyone is doing their own part to get as much information out there as we can.” Van Linge says he was able to verify that the videos from Lutsk were likely genuine, because the airstrip and buildings were recognizable and could be compared against older footage.

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Researchers are seeing a rapidly-evolving military situation in Ukraine. This is what OSINT gives them a birds-eye view. “From around 5am local time until [11am], the videos were mostly missile strikes, smoke clouds, the sounds of shelling and stuff,” van Linge told TIME in an interview on Thursday morning. “Since [midday local time], it has actually developed to footage of Russian forces on the move across parts of Ukraine—they’ve broken out of Crimea, they’ve broken through front-lines near Kharkiv, there’s also reports of fighting south of Belarus, around Donetsk.”

OSINT analysts are acutely aware of the risks that their work may be playing into the Kremlin’s hands, and experts have raised concernsRussian actors might try to spread false information about military activities to incite Ukrainian surrender. It is possible to access the internet in Ukraine, which indicates that Russia does not want footage of their Blitzkrieg attacks suppressed. “I guess the Russians might consider it beneficial as an intimidation tactic,” van Linge says. “They want to show their striking capabilities.”

But the news isn’t all good for Russia. Kyle Glen, cofounder of Conflict News (an OSINT-focused online media platform), said that some footage suggests that fighting has been intense around Kharkiv. Early on Thursday, Glen shared a graphic video—apparently filmed near Kharkiv—depicting what he said were burning Russian tanks and a dead Russian soldier.

“There’s a definite possibility that Russia wants this information to come out,” Glen says. “On the other hand, in the Kharkiv region they are definitely not doing as well as they had hoped—and there are a lot of videos of dead Russian soldiers and destroyed Russian equipment. They’re not going to be happy about stuff like that coming out. If we start seeing more and more evidence of the Russian offensive not going so well, maybe we’ll start to see them crack down on the internet a little bit more.”

Antonio Bronic—ReutersAs they exit Kharkiv (Ukraine), people wait in a jam for their turn after Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, authorized an operation military in Ukraine’s eastern Ukraine. This was Feb. 24, 2019.

The OSINT technique has also been used by sleuths for detecting holes in Kremlin rhetoric. On Monday, researchers deduced that a video of Putin meeting with his security council to discuss Ukraine was not broadcast live, as Moscow had claimed, but several hours earlier—a fact given away by closeup analyses of the wristwatches of several participants.

Glen and van Linge said that a code of conduct was established in Twitter group chats. These are where OSINT analysts can share videos and assist each other with verifying material. Researchers have stated that they won’t share videos showing dead bodies. Some researchers have chosen to not share videos showing the movements of Ukrainian troops. Researchers tend to correct incorrect information or delete tweets from researchers who accidentally post false or misleading data. The collegiate environment helps to prevent most mistakes from happening. Glen was able to observe two people debunking each other in real time on Twitter, long before anyone posted them to their public social media accounts. A video that showed an explosion occurring in the middle of the night was not from Ukraine, but Yemen. One other video, purporting that it showed a Russian helicopter attacking an Ukrainian base, turned out to be actually from Afghanistan.

Over the past decade, these informal guidelines for ethics and verification methods have been refined. Glen and Van Linge started their respective work during the Ukrainian revolution in 2014 and the civil war in Syria. In Syria, OSINT information helped to link deadly gas attacks on the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and undermine the U.S. military’s claims that its airstrikes were hardly killing any civilians. There is an OSINT community feeling that there’s something different about the invasion. “OSINT was a lot more niche in the Syrian civil war,” Glen says. “There was a lot of really gritty technical stuff, like analyzing shell craters. It seems that the community was involved in the building of this. [invasion of Ukraine]It has become a lot easier to access. It’s not difficult to understand if someone posts a video of a Russian convoy of vehicles and can demonstrate how they know where that convoy is.”

“OSINT first and foremost is a collaborative effort,” Glen says. “A great thing about OSINT is that when you’re posting the evidence, you’re posting how you came to it. It allows people to have a lot more trust in what you’re doing—and maybe things get taken a little more seriously.”


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