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This week’s open-source intelligence (OSINT) news from around the world includes Russians inadvertently revealing the position of military equipment in their vacation photos, the alternate video sites making disinformation more popular and how Chinese economic policy could inform us about the potential for conflict.

This is the OSINT news you need to know this week:

Alternative video platforms are making misinformation more popular

Two alternative video platforms, BitChute and Odysse, have given refuge to videos that would otherwise face content moderation on mainstream platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The videos include far-right conspiracy theories, including assertions that the COVID-19 pandemic is fake, the election was stolen and that Bill Gates caused a global formula shortage. The platforms call themselves havens for free speech, but there are real-world consequences to the millions of views these videos circulate.

Since 2019, several acts of violence have been inspired by far-right conspiracy theorists and extremism. BitChute and Odysse have defended their platforms and cited rules against racist and violent content. However, Reuters found many user-generated videos that violated those stated rules. Many videos claim that the racism-fueled mass shooting in Buffalo, New York was a hoax, as well as the Russian massacre of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine. The former was livestreamed and reposted to BitChute where it stayed up for days before eventually being taken down. As YouTube and other platforms crack down on moderation, BitChute and Odysse have seen exponential growth from giving those channels a home.

“Reuters interviews with a dozen people accused of terrorizing election workers revealed that some had acted on bogus information they found on BitChute and almost all had consumed content on sites popular among the far-right.”

— Andrew R.C. Marshall and Joseph Tanfani, Reuters

Russian vacation photos reveal weaponry

An unsuspecting vacationer in Crimea accidentally revealed an S-400 air defense battery in Crimea. The photo was originally posted to the Russian social media site, Vkontakte, and included the geographic coordinates. (Many social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram now strip geodata from images that are uploaded.) The photo of air defense in Molochnoye, Crimea, unwittingly gave away the location of the military weapons.

In a separate incident, a woman posted a picture of Russian soldiers and military equipment to Instagram and included a geotag location. The anti-aircraft missile defense system was revealed to be near Yevpatoria, Crimea. The Instagram photo and account have since been deleted, but the screenshot and location were widely shared on Telegram, where they were obtained by Ukraine’s armed forces. Crimea is a popular vacation destination for Russian tourists, but it has also been the subject of Ukraine’s defense since it was illegally annexed in 2014. The country has been carrying out drone strikes on Russian military operations there, aided in part by OSINT operations.

“The Ukrainian government mocked the footage in a video, suggesting that Russian tourists 'head home' or consider alternative destinations "unless they want an unpleasantly hot summer break.”

— Isabel Van Brugen, Newsweek

What Chinese economics tell us about the potential for war

The response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan and China’s military exercises have raised eyebrows and concerns about future Chinese intentions. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) uses economic trends to help indicate whether the peace between these two nations is in jeopardy. The findings include a multi-step plan China might implement to help protect the Chinese economy and make it more self-reliant, which could indicate an anticipation of international sanctions. The steps include stockpiling supplies, reducing dependency on the U.S. dollar, shifts away from U.S. investments and moving away from foreign software.

The new policies are in no way a guarantee that China is preparing for conflict. It also doesn’t necessarily mean such a conflict would be imminent, rather than years or decades away. CSIS is watching for more immediate indicators, such as restrictions on travel for elites or high-priority workers in China, measures to reduce demand on oil and gas, rations on those products or suspension of exports. As it is, China is less reliant on international financing and is more technologically advanced than Russia, meaning they may be better positioned for international sanctions in the event of a conflict.

“Beijing might prioritize military secrecy over executing short-term economic preparations and use such measures sparingly before the conflict, sharing preparations with a limited set of officials or firms.”

— Gerard DiPippo, Center for Strategic & International Studies

Crypto-nite to sanctions

According to Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Projects, Russian oligarchs have been using cryptocurrency to dodge sanctions. The report comes after several warnings earlier in the summer from intelligence officials who were concerned oligarchs would turn to digital currency in order to evade international financial pressure. U.S. representatives proposed a bill in March to target the use of cryptocurrency by oligarchs.

Hiding millions or even billions of wealth in cryptocurrency is a multi-step process. Many might start by breaking up large sums into smaller investments to avoid attention. Then they may use a technique known as chain-hopping, where the sum is rapidly exchanged between several cryptocurrencies to avoid blockchain analysis. All of this and other methods are known as crypto-laundering. The U.S. has responded with sanctions on some crypto platforms themselves, notably Ethereum, a decision that has been met with pushback and speculation.

“The complication has arisen: can you sanction computer code? And what about the innocent people who have been using the mixer? Is their crypto now sanctioned too?”

— Will Neal, OCCRP

OSINT training for investigators in Ukraine

A five-day online training course was offered to Prosecutors Training Centre of Ukraine (PTCU) members. The course was designed to increase their knowledge of OSINT methods and tools. The effort was in coordination with the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL). The training will be targeted at investigating human rights violations and war crimes in the invasion of Ukraine.

The training included social media analysis, verification and investigation of image and video evidence, as well as training on how to train fellow investigators on the ground.

“Trainers of the Prosecutors Training Centre of Ukraine (PTCU), which included prosecutors, detectives of the Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, police officers, and employees of the PTCU (12 trainers: 9 female and 3 male) increased their knowledge on Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) tools by participating in a five-day online training of trainers (ToT) during 29 August–2 September 2022.”

— Council of Europe

Every other week, we collect OSINT news from around the world. We continue to keep a close watch on Russia's war in Ukraine, especially on Twitter. We’re also gathering information on cyberthreats, federal intelligence strategies and much more. Find us on Twitter and share the OSINT news you’re keeping up with.

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