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The Role of Open-Source Intelligence in the War in Ukraine

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During the Ukraine conflict, OSINT has had a considerable impact on military intelligence, information warfare, media reporting, and the recording of war crimes.

In recent years, the abundance of open-source intelligence (OSINT) has increased tremendously, largely owing to the ever-growing importance of the internet and social media, as well as the larger availability of publicly accessible information and satellite imagery tools.  Whereas before, intelligence was largely the purview of national intelligence agencies, the so-called democratization of intelligence has enabled a greater range of individuals to collect information and deliver intelligence products in an impactful way.  The consequences of this are readily observable in the ongoing war in Ukraine, where OSINT is being used in a variety of ways to monitor troop movements, shape the narrative, track war crimes, and assist in war reportage.

OSINT is defined as ‘the practice of collecting and analysing information gathered from open sources to produce actionable intelligence.’  One advantage of OSINT is that the types of sources available are incredibly varied.  Data can be collected, processed, and analysed from commercial satellite images, public social media posts, unencrypted radio messages, and other publicly available sources.

The abundance of publicly available information readily available for intelligence purposes has had had an impact on the ground in Ukraine.  In addition to the activities of Ukraine’s intelligence professionals, Ukrainian civilians, as well as members of the international community sympathetic to the Ukrainian side, have played a role in delivering useful insights from OSINT to the Ukrainian military.  As noted by British Army General Sir Jim Hockenhull in December last year, OSINT has ‘proved to be a force multiplier’ by allowing a wider range of individuals to participate in the collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence.

The ‘crowdsourcing’ of OSINT has enabled the Ukrainian armed forces to track the movements of Russian military units with greater accuracy, intercept plans and operations, and to anticipate some actions before they take place.  Even before the Russian invasion, signs that it was about going to take place were shared online by individuals using open sources.  For example, Professor Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute examined road traffic reports on Google Maps to identify a jam on the Russian side of the border at 15:15 on February 24, just three hours before the invasion began.  As the war has progressed, commercially and publicly available satellite images have been used to track the location of Russian units and unencrypted radio transmissions and mobile phones have enabled Ukrainians to snoop on Russian communications.  The use of social media by soldiers on both sides is prolific.  By monitoring social media posts on a variety of platforms, intelligence can be obtained on the approximate location, morale, and fighting posture of various military units.

OSINT has also played an important role in information operations, largely helping the Ukrainian side to garner international public opinion in its favour, thus denying Russia an important political advantage.  The collection of evidence through OSINT has been used to counter Putin’s narrative on the war and rebut false flag narratives from the Russians.  For example, in April last year, images and videos surfaced appearing to show the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha by Russian forces.  Russian troops had occupied the town for approximately a month between February 27 to March 31, 2022.  However, Russia claimed that the massacres had in fact been staged by Ukraine to attract Western sympathies.  These claims were debunked by satellite images and video analyses which confirmed that the bodies had been present weeks before Ukrainian forces arrived in Bucha.  The ability to rebut Russian narratives and maintain an advantage in the arena of international political opinion has been of critical importance for Ukraine, which has been able to somewhat offset the quantitative disadvantage it faces against Russia through the receipt of foreign military aid.

The documentation of war crimes has itself been another area where OSINT has shined.  The use of social media by soldiers on both sides of the conflict has been so prolific that some commentators are calling it the ‘first social media war.’  Although this claim is somewhat hyperbolic, the widespread sharing of images and videos on social media platforms like Telegram, YouTube, and Facebook has lifted the fog of war to a previously unseen level.  In many cases, videos and images have surfaced on social media showing flagrant breaches of international law.  Some non-profit groups like OSINT for Ukraine – a collective of ‘university students and young professionals dedicated to documenting war crimes in Ukraine’ – have collected vast amounts of public data in an attempt to verify and record instances of illegal activity.  Of course, verification can itself be difficult, but details like unit insignias can be identified to gather evidence, as can tools like facial recognition software.  Presently, enforcement of international and humanitarian law is not feasible, but it remains to be seen how evidence obtained via open sources may be used to prosecute war crimes at some point after the conflict’s conclusion.

Finally, there are important implications for war reporting posed by the abundant availability of open-source materials.  Whereas information about previous conflicts were predominately communicated to the general public via journalists reporting from the ground, the availability of open-source content has made it possible for individuals to consume a greater amount of information not filtered by the mainstream media.  Various social media accounts, particularly on Telegram, curate images and videos captured on the frontlines of Ukraine.  This presents an opportunity to increase public awareness but also to spread misinformation, given the difficulties of verifying content and the ability to frame information in a misleading way.

The availability of open-source information has also changed the way journalists in the mainstream media work.  Given the abundance of new sources, journalists may also convey information gleamed from these open sources, rather than relying solely on more traditional journalistic methods.  This has accelerated the speed of the news cycle regarding the war.  Before the advent of widespread social media usage, updates from the battlefield could take days, weeks, or months to reach the public.  Now, the news cycle is constant and information from the conflict can be obtained in a matter of minutes or hours as it becomes available online.

The usage of OSINT in the war Ukraine is fast becoming an important case study for future intelligence practitioners and decision makers.  The trends established in this war regarding the abundance of available open sources, as well as the military, political, and informational consequences they pose, will endure and evolve in future conflicts to come.