The explosion of OSINT means that governments can be called out if they release information that can quickly be shown to be false. In the most striking example, the Biden administration in early February announced that its intelligence indicated that Moscow was planning a fake attack that would be blamed on Ukraine, providing a pretext for war.
On Feb. 22, separatists in the Donbas region claimed that three people had been killed in an IED explosion that had destroyed a car and a van. One of the main separatist militia groups posted images of the aftermath on its Telegram channel. News reports quickly followed in the Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta and RT, blaming the attack on Ukraine.
The claims fell apart, however, when the investigative journalism group Bellingcat, which specializes in OSINT, showed the images to an explosives specialist who said the damage shown was not consistent with a blast from an IED. What’s more, charred human remains seemed to be cadavers planted at the scene, with one image showing a cut to the skull, apparently made by a bone saw. “It’s a typical cut made to remove the skullcap as performed during an autopsy,” one forensic pathologist told GRID News.
Now, with the war underway, social media is being swamped by images and videos showing the movement of Russian armor, verbal confrontations between Ukrainian citizens and Russian soldiers, and the impact of missile strikes on residential areas, government buildings, and other infrastructure. “Individual people with cellphones are becoming like sensors,” Hanham said.
“Nowadays, if you do anything significant and you move through population centers with military equipment, everyone has cellphones, and everyone has access to the internet and social media,” Rob Lee, a graduate student researching Russian defense policy at King’s College London’s War Studies Department, told BuzzFeed News in early February.
At that time, comments posted on TikTok from Russia were already revealing future troop movements. “They’re saying, ‘My boyfriend or husband is going to be gone six to nine months.’ They said they were going to Belarus for exercises,” Lee said.
Over the past few days, Ukrainian news broadcasters have urged their viewers to post information on the movement of Russian troops while avoiding images of Ukrainian troop movements or refugees trying to escape the fighting.
The goal, according to Jane Lytvynenko, a Ukrainian-born research fellow in the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and formerly a BuzzFeed News reporter, is to create an “uneven OSINT environment” that will help the defense of Ukraine.
But for some OSINT specialists, analyzing information released selectively to tip the scales of a conflict raises some difficult questions. It’s especially fraught when the intelligence involves videos taken from people from their apartments, which could be easily geolocated and potentially targeted for reprisals. “Now we are moving into an era of ‘Should I do this, could I do more harm than good?’” Hanham said.
Companies providing satellite imagery could also change the dynamics of a war by selectively releasing information that gives a propaganda or military advantage to one side. BuzzFeed News asked Planet, Maxar Technologies, and Capella Space, which each have contracts with the US defense sector as well as operating in the civilian one, to comment on how they consider what information to release, given the possibility that this might cause combatants to be targeted for missile strikes and bombings. Maxar did not immediately respond. Planet referred BuzzFeed News to a statement expressing concern for Ukraine.
“We provide transparency, which is what the world needs at a time like
this,” Capella said by email. “Our public catalog is available to customers and other approved
entities to see what data is available.”
What is clear is that OSINT is now part of the fabric of war. “This data is out there. It’s on the internet,” De La Fuente said. “It’s not going to go away.”