Their Photos Were Posted Online. Then They Were Bombed

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When it comes to armies launching attacks with open source intelligence (including in the Wagner incident), they are unlikely to do so solely based on data gleaned from social media. While Ukrainian officials have said the photos of Wagner’s base were helpful, it’s unclear whether they combined that with existing information before launching their attack. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry did not respond to questions about how it uses open source intelligence. However, he recently shared a photo online claiming that a A Russian tourist posted his vacation photos in front of Russian air defense systems.

“The military likes to have fidelity if they’re going to do a kinetic attack or target something; they have to justify their targeting,” says Maggie Smith, an assistant professor at the Army Cyber ​​​​Institute at West Point, adding that the their opinions are not. they represent those of the US Army. Smith says OSINT can “show you where the activity might be so you can target finer intelligence assets to focus on that area and get better visibility, better granularity, learn more about that.”

The Wagner attack is not the only case of military action based (at least in part) on information published online. In June, the Center for Information Resilience (CIR), a non-profit organization that counters influence peddling, released a report that said a pro-Russian OSINT group used footage from a news channel Ukrainian to locate an ammunition factory in Kyiv. The building was hit by Russian missiles and three civilians were killed. People in Ukraine have also faced criticism for sharing pictures of their locations on social media.

Anything posted online can be used by military forces for planning or operations. “As a commander in the field, you have to be aware that there is so much data going on about each of your Soldiers at any given time,” says Smith. “Signals emitted from anyone’s cell phones or web presence, anything like that, can send signals to your adversary about your location, possible training cycles, all that kind of stuff. Any kind of photo posted by anyone in your ranks can probably be used to help identify where you stand, what assets you may have.” (In the past, public data from the fitness app Strava exposed military bases, as well as the names and heart rates of the soldiers there.)

Giangiuseppe Pili, an open source intelligence researcher at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, says OSINT has been used by the military and intelligence for years, but recently there has been an acceleration in what it is possible “The big change is the data fusion capability of open source intelligence now, in order to combine different sources into a single product that really gives a picture of reality in a realistic sense,” says Pili. The speed of analyzing open source data has also increased, says Pili.

In addition to making sure the data is accurate before acting on it, McDonald says there can be privacy issues for the military using open-source data they pull from social media. “We don’t really have a good understanding of what the limits should be or if there should be any,” McDonald says, adding that if citizens send the information they’ve taken, that could make them military targets, further blurring the line. between civilian and combatant.

Although OSINT is used on the ground for military purposes, it is also used in Ukraine to clean up after battles. Andro Mathewson, a research officer at the HALO Trust, is using open source data in Ukraine to help remove landmines and understand what weapons are being used. This comes largely from social media posts. “Our analysis helps us plan our operations, adapt our demining training and know what to teach people in our risk education,” says Mathewson.

In April, the HALO Trust moved its headquarters to the Kyiv region to focus on “de-cluttering the occupation” in the area, Mathewson says. “During our open source data trawl, I detected a cluster of tractor and harvester accidents caused by anti-tank mines in Makarov,” they say. “Things like videos of burning tractors or photographs of large craters, or destroyed vehicles without wheels.” As a result of social posts and open source data, the group was able to deploy their teams to the area and begin cleaning up the destruction.

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