The ongoing war in Ukraine has highlighted a new dimension in the importance of social media and the free and public availability of information, which has been called “Open Source Intelligence,” or OSINT, which contributes to a greater understanding of crises and conflicts.
This mechanism has changed the way journalists and analysts perceive violent conflict, using a variety of publicly available sources, such as newspapers, satellite images, videos, images, texts from social media, and publicly available information of all kinds.
However, it did not suddenly appear in Ukraine, but rather began to work as a journalistic source with the spread of social media, but it had strengthened its tools and developed a lot during the period of the Syrian conflict.
Today, open source investigative reporting has become a haven for many journalists and analysts to follow the news of countries where dictatorships prevent them from working freely.
Archiving and Documentation
The Voice of Germany (Deutsche Welle) said on March 24 that “researchers are relying on the open source mechanism they used previously to uncover suspected crimes in Syria, for documenting violations and possible war crimes in Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion of it.”
In its report entitled “Lessons from online investigators in Syria help Ukraine,” it added that the conflict in Syria is similar to the current war in Ukraine, especially in terms of Russia's involvement in the war in the two countries, and Moscow's war tactics are almost similar.
“Russia used bombs in both countries to target civilian infrastructure, schools, childcare homes, hospitals and markets, in actions that amount to war crimes under humanitarian and international law,” the report indicated.
In the Syrian and Ukrainian wars, researchers use open sources to uncover crimes committed, especially information that is freely available online and social media, which is why it is called open source intelligence, according to the report.
“Researchers collect and verify evidence on a large scale, including the identity and concentration of attacking forces, the number of casualties, and the extent of damage to infrastructure, as well as information on military equipment and weapons used in the attacks,” the report added.
For example: With the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, investigators used videos on social media showing the use of missile attacks, and counted the tanks that were destroyed and the names of the dead soldiers and soldiers.
“The open source investigation team in the Ukrainian war is divided between those working inside Ukrainian territory and others in other countries, repeating the same mechanism used in Syria,” the report indicates.
Western countries accuse the Russian army of bombing civilians, in its military operations, which it has been waging since February 24 in Ukraine.
On March 17, the foreign ministers of the G7 countries warned through a joint declaration that the perpetrators of war crimes in Ukraine will be held accountable before the international judiciary, expressing their satisfaction with the investigations and evidence-gathering operations taking place in Ukraine.
The clearest use of open sources in war journalism appeared with Russia’s deployment of its forces and aircraft in Syria to support the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and the preliminary period for its intervention was documented months before the official Russian announcement. This was early evidence of the power of open source intelligence, but it matured more in the war in Ukraine.
The DW report quoted Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, the investigative journalism site that specializes in open source intelligence, as saying: “The investigations conducted by his site in the Syrian case and Ukraine between 2014 and 2017 were the basis for all the operations they use today in Ukraine.”
“The Syrian conflict also marked the beginning of our current relationship with the technology community, international accountability organizations, political decision makers, and others,” Mr. Higgins added.
It is noteworthy that Bellingcat site has now become one of the most important news sources, and is famous for its daring investigations in which it penetrates the forbidden to reach what is hidden by authoritarian regimes.
Bellingcat has been logging incidents that appear to depict civilian impact or harm since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine.
We have now visualised this data in a TimeMap feature that allows users to explore what we have found �� https://t.co/rUBG22X4SV
The non-profit organization Mnemonic (based in Berlin) has also played a key role in efforts to investigate crimes committed in conflicts in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Sudan, and formed an archive for each of those countries to preserve digital evidence of human rights violations, especially as they are threatened with disappearance.
The Syrian journalist Hadi al-Khatib, who oversaw the establishment of the Syrian Archive Project in 2014, recently began launching the Ukrainian Archives to preserve material from the videos and images that the Bellingcat site considers important.
In an exclusive interview with the author of the DW report, Mr. al-Khatib said: “It only took a few days until we were able to establish the Ukrainian archive. We have the knowledge and experience in creating such an archive, as we know that there are certain standards and protocols that need to be in place to preserve this material.”
“We learned everything during our work on Syria. We realized the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine as soon as we saw them. We know how they can be used, and the resulting different small explosions occur at the same time at random,” the Syrian journalist noted.
Mr. al-Khatib believes that “there are certain indicators that conclude that targeting a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, with a missile, was not a mistake.”
“We have to prove that there is a deliberate intention, and we have a clear system of action in this framework. We understand how to do this at the present time, because what Mariupol and Kharkiv were exposed to was the same of what happened in the city of Aleppo in 2016,” he added.
Credibility and Reliability
Russia had repeatedly had to delete clips and photos from several TV reports after they were published because they are a direct denial of Russian allegations in the context of Putin's wars on Syria and Ukraine.
For example, through clips broadcast by Russian elements on social media, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published in October 2019 an investigation into crimes committed in Syria, where the identity of the perpetrators, their names and the party to which they belong (Wagner Militia) were known.
The newspaper's investigations did not depend on a source from within the Russian militia, but rather on open source intelligence and found credibility and reliability in them, which prompted the newspaper's editor-in-chief to adopt the story and take responsibility for publishing it.
Reliance on open sources, videos and photos that are published on social media sites and satellite images, came to make up for the lack of information and prevent the press from working freely, and relying on the analysis and comparison of photos and videos, in many cases the true story is revealed and the lies propagated by these regimes are exposed.
Novaya Gazeta is not the first newspaper to adopt open source investigations. It was preceded by many major international newspapers, including The Washington Post, The Guardian, Bild, and The New York Times, in addition to international news agencies. Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have also relied on these investigations.
Regarding the recent start of Western media to rely heavily on open source intelligence, the Syrian analyst and researcher Suhail al-Ghazi explained in a statement to Al-Estiklal that “using an open source intelligence strategy is nothing new, but its use by the media is now becoming more widespread.”
“The main reason for this is the amount of information and huge materials on social media and the development of monitoring and verification mechanisms, especially since its use has now become easier and does not require huge financial capabilities, unlike the previous period when obtaining satellite images was very expensive and difficult,” he pointed out.
As for the effect of relying on this strategy by the media, Mr. al-Ghazi pointed out that “relying on open source also has risks, because fabricated or manipulated material can be used and diverted out of context by certain countries in order to guide public opinion.”
“Despite all efforts to increase verification, in a time of armed conflict that relies on online propaganda, the challenges faced by the media are even greater,” he said.
Regarding the role of information provided by open sources in accountability and achieving justice, the researcher noted that “there are specific and precise criteria for accepting digital evidence in courts, as it needs a specialized type of analysis and monitoring, but it will certainly be important evidence and may help to achieve justice.”
Mr. al-Ghazi concluded by saying: “It is important to raise awareness among human rights activists, and even citizens in conflict areas about what is acceptable or rejected by international courts, to obtain better and more solid results against the attempts of distortion and falsification adopted by authoritarian regimes.”
On February 18, The Economist said that “a new era of transparent warfare beckons,” meaning that the armies' movements and violations are being monitored in an unprecedented way in history, in an indication that the credit for exposing Putin's war plans in Ukraine and Syria relied on open source information.
“Publicly available information is the biggest spying tool you can use whether you are a CEO or a military leader. If you don’t have access to social media… you will fail.” This is what Michael Flynn, the former director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), said in 2012.
According to Defense One published in November 2016, Flynn also explained that “before the advent of social media, 90 percent of useful intelligence came from classified sources, but now the exact opposite is happening.”
The open source intelligence that Flynn was so keen on, first appeared in the 1930s, when it was separated from the traditional spying profession during World War II.
Analysts collaborating with the CIA knew the number of casualties in Hitler's army from the obituaries section of German newspapers available in neutral Switzerland.
Today, however, thanks to the wealth of online resources, open-source intelligence researchers use everything from photos and videos posted on social media to air traffic-monitoring websites, to satellite imagery and apps to eavesdrop on insecure conversations on radios or phones.
The explosive growth of the commercial satellite industry, which in 2013 received $195 billion in revenue, is the most significant increase in the usefulness of open source intelligence.
Companies such as DigitalGlobe and Airbus, the two largest in the field, provide their customers with images not far from the capabilities of the US government, and an example of which was during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The use of open source intelligence was not limited to military and journalistic use. A 2015 study released by the independent research organization Data & Society says that “about 80% of US law enforcement have relied on social media platforms as intelligence-gathering tools.”