Amateur analysts offer a basic source of information on Ukraine on the Internet | Technology
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has left at least 1,664 vehicles and heavy weapons destroyed or captured. The real number is higher and it’s not even good enough to know precisely who is winning (although only 20% of that useless material is Ukrainian) but accuracy is worth more than a simple guess. The list is from Oryx Blog, a couple of Dutch people who have been collecting photos of lost military equipment for years. Each of the 1,664 vehicles gathered until this Wednesday is linked to the image from which they have been taken. It is a work of digital goldsmith.
The Oryx Blog is just one example of the explosion of trusted open source intelligence (OSINT) sources: people poring over images, videos, or maps taken from the internet to see what’s happening on the front lines. or in areas not accessible to journalists or other observers. A Twitter account created in February called Ukraine Weapons Tracker [rastreador de armas en Ucrania] and created by two other specialists, Obscura Caliber and Armory Bazaar, It already has more than 300,000 followers with less than a thousand tweets in total. His job is to identify weaponry on the ground and put it in context.
#ukraine: A UAZ-469 light utility vehicle with police lights was abandoned in an unspecified location. Guessing by the type of the vehicle, it likely belongs to the DNR/LNR forces. pic.twitter.com/amu27Q39eX
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) March 16, 2022
These are just two examples. Amateur accounts of geolocation, weapons, military history, flight tracking, satellite photos have been refining their work in recent years. This movement has a clear beginning and a pioneer: Eliot Higgins, in the Arab Spring. In 2012, Higgins was a computer scientist from a small town in the UK. He is now the founder of Bellingcat, the medium that has concentrated the growth of OSINT in recent years. In Ukraine they have become a reference. Another great advantage is that everything is documented: there is no data without a video or photo behind it where what is seen is analyzed in detail. The public can assess for itself how much to believe.
“In 2008, when I said that I specialized in intelligence from open sources on the Internet, they looked at me over my shoulder and told me that the Internet was full of cats, geek bullshit and lies,” explains Jesús Pérez Triana, security analyst and defense attorney who has worked in the field of private enterprise and has been immersed in OSINT for years. He currently manages a Twitter account with more than 35,000 followers and constant appearances on TV. “Now suddenly the OSINT is a serious thing and everyone is saying that ‘there is something that has been confirmed on the internet’; we’ve gone from ‘little nonsense’ to ‘look, a geolocated photo’”, he adds.
The knowledge of these specialists has already helped to document alleged war crimes, but they are also expected to testify, for example, in the United Kingdom Parliament, and they already collaborate with the media to give context to the information they publish about the war. EL PAÍS has published pieces based on open sources. There are newspapers that have their own “visual investigations” units with more than a dozen members. Most experts have cut their teeth on Twitter, the center where all this information is shared, criticized and viralized.
How does one become an OSINT expert? Pérez Triana says that at least a couple of requirements are needed: “The profile is usually a guy interested in history or military technology, who does it in his spare time with a lot of passion,” he says. “He’s usually a student, obsessed with detail, who can put in hours and has encyclopedic knowledge,” he adds. Bellingcat has an article on how to get started in the world: find out what you’re interested in (conflict, solving mysteries, programming, weapons), start a Twitter account, make lists of people who do what you’re interested in, look for more specific communities (in the apps Discord or Reddit, for example) and practice a lot.
The origin of OSINT lies in two key factors: the camera that each person carries on their mobile and the ability to share these images on networks. These two elements have created a new discipline, where geeks hooked on their screens at all hours have found meaning: “Comedoritos”, Pérez Triana calls them. “We have gone from dining rooms in front of the computer they were crazy geeks who shared rumors about people doing sophisticated things, ”he says. In just a decade they are in fact almost James Bond. “The head of [la organización de inteligencia británica] MI6 said he needed more of an expert in big data than James Bond. Today the organization that is not prepared to detect and analyze information that is out there is not serious”, he adds.
An interesting thread about the limitations of the transformation and modernization of the Russian army. I would take the opportunity to reflect on the real situation of the Spanish armed forces, in clear decline.https://t.co/McGIZNxM9w
– Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana 🌻 (@jpereztriana) March 14, 2022
The motivation to enter a community where you have to dedicate all your free time can be difficult to understand from the outside, but not for the most Internet-savvy people, according to Pérez Triana: “The amount of time, resources, knowledge, enthusiasm that can putting people who work for a common purpose is enormous. It is a mentality that comes from software free. You work for free because you are in a community and your motivation is to gain prestige there. You contribute and receive without measuring. Being respected by that community is your main motivation,” she adds. There is something else: the work is inexhaustible. “You are part of a community where there is always someone who knows more than you: a language, a type of weapon,” she adds.
For the Spanish community of OSINT there is a small problem: the language. For communication to flow and exchange almost everything is in English. even investigations about mexican narcos are shared in English. “In Spanish there is not a very clear community,” says Yago Rodríguez, director of Political Room and youtuber. “It is rather a technique, a deeper way of exploiting information on the internet and in the world in English, yes there is,” she adds. “The group that analyzes open sources is integrated into an international community that by default communicates in English. There is no relevant work on the end of the Colombian conflict or others in Latin America, as far as I know,” says Juan Luis Chulilla, a partner at Online and Offline, a social and user studies company.
In Spanish there is a group called La Brigada Osint, co-founded in May 2020 by Aimery Parekh, which is a pseudonym for the person who runs a Discord chat with over 700 members. Although their aspiration is to become the “Spanish Bellingcat”, they admit that “there is still a long way to go”. Contrary to the origins of Bellingcat, the main activity of La Brigada is not on Twitter: “Our presence on Twitter is very limited, since we prefer the proximity offered by forums such as Discord or Telegram,” says Parekh, who shares the growth of searches for “osint” in Google in the last year both worldwide and in Spain.
Parekh also believes that in Ukraine “the great potential of open source analysis has been demonstrated”, partly due to the demand of citizens to find verified information. Looking to the future, he sees the profession of OSINT analyst as promising and gives as an example that the Armies are already demanding them: “The Intelligence Center of the Armed Forces has just drawn up a contract in which the OSINT analyst is among the profiles it is looking for” , Explain. “They use civilian experts and we know that many members of law enforcement are training in OSINT analysis,” he adds.
This slow professionalization of the sector means that one of the incentives to learn these techniques is that they become a paid job. “Once a curious thing happened to me,” explains Pérez Triana. “A guy shared a blurry photo from an anonymous account asking if he could identify it: I said that was a Russian radar antenna mast. I immediately thought: who will need to be identified by a Russian radar, I am working for someone for free”.
The future of the discipline is one of the unknowns. The growth curve these years has been extraordinary. Ukraine represents the highlight, at least for now. But the number of hours of video and files to analyze is becoming overwhelming. At Bellingcat they already have programmers trying to apply artificial intelligence to solve new mysteries. In Spain, Juan Luis Chulilla believes that this is the inevitable path and compares it to the leap between the manual directories that Yahoo made to find information on the Internet and the arrival of Google with its search engine. ”This is the same thing, it is a small niche within the great ocean of information where some people use human capacities. It’s great, but we’re drowning in information,” he explains.
What is the future? Artificial intelligence and the lowering of the access barrier to its resources such as sentiment analysis of texts or computer vision. Chulilla recounts a recent personal experience. “Two guys from Kenya uploaded a fundamental computer vision library to make it easier to use. I took it, put it to work and with 15 lines of code I was already capturing video from the window of my house and identifying buses. He is very crazy,” he adds. With other training, you can distinguish animals, faces, bodies, types of vehicles, or damaged buildings.
“It is to give super powers in the medium term,” adds Chulilla. “If a group known as Belllingcat gained significant computer vision capabilities it would acquire the intelligence capabilities of a mid-size NATO power. And I’m not exaggerating,” he says.
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