By Kai Suherwan
In the Ukrainian countryside, a lone individual with a cell phone and an internet connection takes a video of the Russian column that advances further into Ukrainian territory. With a tap of their screen, that video is shared to Telegram, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and a plethora of social media sites. Within seconds that video is shared by others and within minutes, hundreds, if not thousands have seen the footage. This footage would land in the hands of ordinary individuals, as well as the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.
This is an example of a phenomenon known as Open Source Intelligence or OSINT. In its most basic forms, traditional intelligence gathering would rely on agents or actors working for a certain government to collect information, with the information usually being hidden from the public. OSINT on the other hand relies on anyone on the ground, with the information being collected available to anyone with an internet connection. There are many methods that the OSINT community uses to report ongoing conflicts. A common thing seen in OSINT communities is geolocating areas where videos take place using software such as Google Earth. Terrain features such as coastlines, mountains and roads are matched with footage taken from the conflict zone. The opening salvos of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were captured by OSINT sites when webcam footage of a border checkpoint near Crimea showed Ukrainian soldiers running away from their post as Russian soldiers advanced. However, while OSINT may sound like an extremely valuable asset, it should be used hand in hand with traditional intelligence as a tool for our government agencies.
OSINT has been around for many years and has been used by the military, specifically in Iraq. When I asked retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling about the U.S. military’s use of OSINT, he told me about a low tech method they had used in Iraq to gather intelligence. Taxi drivers in the city of Baghdad were known for picking up gossip and news as they drove passengers around the city. As U.S. security forces in the region were trying to maintain control of the city that was split between militias and terrorist groups, they would take advantage of taxi gossip in order to paint a picture of what was going on around the city. The more tech-savvy version of OSINT we see today was first seen during the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War. The videos of protests that broke out around the Arab world in the early 2010s, were circulated online, which allowed people from every corner of the world to see what was going on during these uprisings. The large flow of information would carry on to the civil wars that would break out, specifically in Syria. Websites such as Liveuamap have been tracking the civil war in Syria for many years, with an interactive map showing incidences with links to videos and sources of those incidences.
The conflict in Ukraine has been a major source of OSINT reporting. Russian warplanes that were shot down over Ukraine were able to be identified by the markings on their aircraft, being matched to photos of them before the war. This allowed a somewhat accurate picture of how many air casualties the Russian Air Force had taken during the conflict. Along with this, OSINT sources have geolocated battles and engagements of significance. Ukrainian retaliatory attacks within Russia have been in the news lately, with a Russian oil depot in Belgorod being attacked by low flying Ukrainian attack helicopters. Videos of the plant on fire would circulate online with the locations of the depot being confirmed through cross-referencing Google street view photos and the videos shared. There have also been countless videos of destroyed tanks, armoured vehicles and trucks that have given the world a picture of losses in the conflict and of how modern combat will play out in wars without an absolute advantage on one side. The use of OSINT by the Ukrainian and Russian military is currently unverified, with the fog of war in this conflict not being clear yet, we are unable to confirm the use of OSINT until after this conflict ends.
For those who are interested in working in the field of intelligence, OSINT will be an important tool of the trade for years to come. OSINT can be practiced from anywhere with an internet connection. Covert Cabal, a Youtube channel that focuses on military analysis, performed a great example of OSINT with tools that are available to the average civilian. Looking for the GMD ballistic missile interceptors in California, he scrolls through Google Earth to find any points of interest around Vandenburg Airforce Base to no avail. He then decides to try and geolocate the launch site of the missiles from the press photographs released by the Department of Defence. Using the photographs, he identifies the hills, roads and lamp posts surrounding the launch site. Referencing these clues on Google Earth, he was able to find the exact launch site from which the missiles were launched. Today, this technique is being used by many online to track the conflict in Ukraine and will be a tool used in many conflicts to come.
While OSINT may be an effective method to gather information, it should not be the only form of intelligence gathering in the modern-day. Rather it should be used as a tool that can be used alongside traditional intelligence-gathering methods. Hertling says that OSINT “Provides context” while traditional intelligence provides detail. He also said that OSINT has a problem with reliability, especially when asked who is giving the information and if they have an agenda. This problem has been seen recently in Ukraine, specifically through the myth of the ‘Ghost of Kyiv.’ The Ghost of Kyiv was a name given to an alleged Mig-29 Fulcrum pilot who had ‘shot down’ six Russian aircraft. Videos that were shown of this pilot were debunked, with information coming out that videos being shared were from a video game. Despite this, the Ghost of Kyiv would be peddled by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense as a propaganda tool to boost morale in their defense against Russia. That being said, if intelligence gathered from OSINT is able to be verified, relevant agencies should quickly take advantage of the information that they have.
The field of intelligence is constantly evolving as new technologies make intelligence gathering a multifaceted domain. Gone are the days in which satellite images and live reports of conflict zones were only available to government agencies. Now, anyone with an internet connection is able to track conflicts and flashpoints around the world.