How Open-Source Intelligence is poised to change how we hear about war

Robin Mentel explains what OSINT is, why it has become so important for the current war in Ukraine, and why we will likely hear more of it in the future.

For the longest time, governments held an absolute monopoly on the information on the realities of war, which they regularly used for propaganda for their own cause. This changed during the Vietnam war, when independent journalists brought the gruesome reality of the war onto tv screens, drastically changing public opinion on the war. Still, when for example Britain won the decisive battle of the Falklands War in 1982, the news needed more than a day to reach the British public. But on the 24th of February last year, the world watched live on TikTok and Twitter how Russian soldiers and arms were pouring into the Ukraine, heralding one of the greatest changes in the European political landscape of the past century. These images and videos of the battles proved to be a treasure trove for governments and ministries of defence, as they provided up-to-date and valuable Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). Formerly a niche effort of intelligence agencies compared to other means of intelligence gathering, OSINT has now come of age in the war in Ukraine, and casually changed the way that the world’s public is informed about the war, providing a direct view into what is going on at the front. This means little less than the fundamental democratisation of access to strategic information on war, accessible to everyone with an internet connection. It is worth investigating what OSINT actually is, and how it is impacting and shaping the way that people get informed about modern conflicts - for better or worse.

So, what exactly is OSINT? OSINT stands for Open Source Intelligence and simply refers to unclassified information that stems from an open source, which is free and legally available for anyone to acquire. These sources can be everything: from traffic jams on Google Maps caused by columns of tanks on the move, over public shipping records and commercially available satellite data, to selfies of soldiers or snapshots of anchored warships posted by curious bystanders on social media. It saw its inception in World War II, when nations for example deduced the success of bombing raids of bridges by studying the price of oranges. Still, many agencies did not take it too seriously, suspicious about the “expenseless” acquisition of the information, with the mindset that “if a piece of information costs a trillion dollars, it must be worth a trillion dollars." Today, OSINT is collected by expert sleuths that comb the internet for nuggets of information, for example to answer the question: how many tanks does Russia have in storage today? In the 1960s, this answer needed billions of dollars and decades of development for a spy plane; in the 1980s, expensive and top-secret spy satellites and months of preparations. Recently, the Youtuber Covert Cabal simply bought imagery from commercial satellites of Russian military bases, then counted the tanks in these bases, and with images on Russian telegram channels from these bases, checked the condition and model of these tanks. Equipped with a couple hundred euros and a few working days, he got a solid picture of the depth of the armoured reserve in Russia. While OSINT is typically constrained to legally obtained information, organisations such as Bellingcat sometimes cross that line to go shopping on the black market for data - successfully when they identified the men behind the attempted murder of former double-agent Sergei Skripal in London, but with worrisome implications for data protection.

“[OSINT] means little less than the fundamental democratisation of access to strategic information on war, accessible to everyone with an internet connection.”

Throughout the war in Ukraine, OSINT has played a significant role with the ubiquity of internet access and mobile phones. Organisations like Bellingcat and Oryx can pierce through the infamous fog of war, visually confirming destroyed tanks and planes to give a robust estimate on the material lost in the war. iPhone videos by bystanders watching Russian cruise missiles being shot down by surface-to-air-missiles can provide information on the success of air defence units, while studying Russian obituaries gives a solid floor on the number of Russian casualties of the war. Pictures on Social Media of soldiers showing the patches and insignia on their uniforms, and unit markings on the side of tanks can give away the position and the condition of battalions and entire divisions. For this information, these sleuths scour social media, telegram channels, and image boards, collecting and sifting through countless hours of geotagged video material. Another strength of OSINT is on the battlefield of public opinion. Shortly after the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the missile cruiser Moskva, was hit by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles, it was filmed with billowing smoke coming from the deck and trailing oil in the calm Black Sea. The images provided a devastating blow to the morale of the Russian navy, showcasing the enormous failure represented by the fact that a ship with powerful defences like the Moskva could be in mortal danger from two such missiles.

OSINT is also helping with the investigation of war crimes. It saw its inception for this purpose during the War in Syria, when activists collected the records of crimes perpetrated against humanity during the conflict, for example in the Syrian Archive project. Organisations like Bellingcat are doing the same now in Ukraine on an even greater scale, recording destroyed schools, hospitals, and high-rises, tagging tweets and posts on telegram channels that show the attacks against civilian infrastructure. The project “OSINT for Ukraine” by Ukrainian civilians and students is something similar, aiming to “present to the world the atrocities committed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine” by recording the evidence of mass killings and rape in the Ukrainian regions occupied by the Russian army. The experience of recording the war crimes in Syria was of great help for their work in Ukraine, since the Russian perpetrators used similar arms and munitions in both cases. This systematic collection of evidence is hoped to help in trials in front of the International Criminal Court to bring justice to the scores of civilian victims.

Equipped with a couple hundred euros and a few working days, he got a solid picture of the depth of the armoured reserve in Russia.

The coming of age of OSINT in this war also changed how western powers use their intelligence publicly, which they at one time would have kept secret, even from their peers. In the weeks and days leading up to the Russian invasion, the US government had a precise picture of the invasion plans from regular intelligence and OSINT. They publicly warned their European partners and the Ukraine about the impending invasion, a warning that wasn't heeded everywhere, but by proactively sharing their knowledge on Putin’s plans, they constantly kept the Russian government on the backfoot, unnerving them, forcing them to investigate potential leaks in their own government. Another example is the British Ministry of Defence, which regularly publishes a comprehensive review of the war on Twitter and Social Media, highlighting the state and potential future operations of the Russian armed forces. It is likely that other governments will in future continue this behaviour of openly sharing and discussing their intelligence. The information is bound to be released to the public anyways, but sharing the intelligence on their own terms enables them to proactively shape public perception and knowledge of the conflict. One should be hopeful that these outfits will be as critical and investigative of western military efforts as they are of Russian counterparts, in the case of preventing another Iraq war. It is a truly fascinating niche of the internet, open to everyone with interest and a connection.

Further reading:

UCD’s department for computer science has a Master-level course on OSINT. Sentinel Hub provides collection of satellite data, for example on the extent of Russian fortifications along the frontlines: Janes is an intelligence company that specialises on OSINT, and have a brilliant podcast on Spotify called “The World of Intelligence”, where they regularly discuss the topic and its implications on security policy. Youtubers like Perun, Ryan Macbeth, and especially Covert Cabal give thorough background information on topics of military and security policy, often using OSINT.