Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is perhaps simultaneously the most known and unknown field of intelligence today. It encompasses all publicly available information derived from every contemporary source on any given subject. Given this, its range is extraordinarily large, and the knowledge gained from it has long been used by civilians during conflict to tip off their troops and help them in battle.
OSINT has evolved through time alongside the very technology it relies on. From the Foreign Broadcast Information Service during the Second World War to geolocated footage of Russian troops recorded by Ukrainian civilians on their cell phones, OSINT is a long-standing tradition in civilian support to war efforts.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coupled with the rapidly evolving nature of modern technology, has brought OSINT under an unprecedented spotlight. Contemporary use of open-source intelligence has evolved from a largely voluntary practice by tenacious individuals to a burgeoning field of research with government bureaus setting up OSINT units of their own.
With constant chatter on social media, continuous uploads of smartphone footage and increased availability of satellite image technology, OSINT has ushered in a new type of information warfare and put Ukraine under a microscope. It has started to show the international public details of war that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.
Tricks, tools and exploits
Constantly emerging technology has given internet sleuths and OSINT volunteers a wealth of information to sort through using new tools both simple and sophisticated. Traffic data on Google Maps exposed coordinated Russian troop activity near the Ukrainian border.
OSINT investigators revealed preparation and stockpiling in Russian warehouses through NASA satellite imagery from space-based SAR (synthetic aperture radar) sensors. These sensors can cut through cloud cover as well as certain building materials to paint an estimated picture of some of Russia’s resources. Preliminary intelligence on troop movements and munitions can be invaluable for the international community to coordinate a joint response and for Ukrainian troops to strategize and prepare.
Contemporary reliance on social media has further revealed a wealth of tactical information. Russian troops have routinely uploaded photos on Telegram and VK with their profiles and the social media profiles of their fellow soldiers tagged. Often, these photos also have a tagged location or at the very least, substantial clues, such as uniforms from specific battalions or photo backgrounds depicting military bases.
These pictures, along with the locations derived from them can be matched and cross- referenced with civilian reports of military aggression in the locations of the tagged bases. Additionally, Russian troops have uploaded videos of their journey on convoy trucks onto TikTok. These videos, taken consistently along the route, allow OSINT sleuths to identify the type of vehicle, what brigade it was from and the vehicle formation.
These can then be used to help map out potential routes of travel to incorporate into defensive battle strategy. This blunder can also boost Ukrainian morale as it speaks to poor military training amongst Russian troops.
The wide use of smartphones among Ukraine’s population effectively means millions of civilians are armed with sensors, something extremely hard for the Russian army to prevent. By exploiting this capability, Ukrainian forces have altered the traditional kill chain and outsourced parts of it to civilians reporting Russian movements, thereby building a more extensive and resilient network.
Risks of integrating OSINT further
There are several implications to consider from this strategy. Civilian ability to effectively geolocate enemy movement can lead to civilians being targeted. In the case of Ukraine where countless witness testimonies show the laws of armed combat are not being followed, this will not make things any worse. Still, policymakers and military units should consider these implications if OSINT is to be further integrated into warfighting.
OSINT blurring the lines of civilian efforts in warfighting can also be dangerous in terms of expertise. Understanding how to properly exploit resources such as satellite imagery often requires hours of training.