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This week in open-source intelligence (OSINT) news: citizens are encouraged to use OSINT to help protect oceans but cautioned against getting too close to military objects; an expert offers advice on analyzing leaked datasets, while a legal researcher suggests a closer look into how OSINT impacts human rights in conflict zones.

This is the OSINT news of the week: 

Citizens use OSINT to unmask threats to oceans

Our oceans are vast, and protecting their health is an essential task for governments and (non-governmental organizations) NGOs around the world. It is, however, a difficult task to keep track of the growing volume of illegal acts – from breaking up ships for resale in unauthorized shipyards, to dumping toxic chemicals many miles offshore, to using banned fishing methods that endanger marine life and threaten entire ecosystems. By enabling everyday citizens to collect available information, authorities can focus on the enforcement of international laws.

Addressing ocean threats requires a collaborative approach involving not only international authorities, but also regular citizens equipped with the capability to collect and analyze open-source information. With publicly available websites, satellite images and social media posts, ordinary people can do their part in protecting our oceans – by helping international authorities spot ships that are entering illegal shipyards, detect patterns in fishing fleet movements that could be indicative of illegal fishing or identifying dumping sites based on visual markers.

“We can use open-source information and intelligence to uncover, expose and address environmental threats to our oceans. OSINT techniques combined with satellite imagery, vessel tracking, and social media analysis can help us build a more complete picture of what is truly going on.”

– Rae Baker, Expert in Maritime Intelligence, Senior OSINT Analyst in Advisory Intelligence

Chinese authorities crack down on OSINT enthusiasts

China is cautioning against unauthorized collection and sharing of sensitive military information. Western analysts frequently monitor online sources where enthusiasts share images of military equipment, particularly from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These amateur spotters use telephoto lenses and drones to photograph military objects at airports, ports and industrial locations despite a stern warning from the Ministry of State Security signals a crackdown on such activities. According to a message posted on WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app, China’s authorities view some military enthusiasts as a threat to national military security and warn of potential severe punishments, especially for repeat offenders.

Interestingly, the U.S. Code has a similar clause, prohibiting taking photos of military equipment without proper authorization. Both China and the United States recognize the role of amateur enthusiasts in open-source intelligence and are taking steps to safeguard national security and protect military secrets. As tensions between the two nations escalate, these measures underscore the importance of controlling the flow of sensitive information in the digital age.

“The Ministry of State Security has been actively cautioning citizens through social media against exposing China’s secrets and encouraging them to join the fight against espionage.”

– The Republic. Digital Desk. Word News

Learning to authenticate large leaked datasets

Data leaks can change the course of history. From the 1971 leak of military documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which led to the end of the Vietnam War, to the 2010 leak of Iraq and Afghanistan documents that helped spark the Arab Spring, these revelations can be powerful agents of change and influencers of public opinion.

Yet, many of these digital sources are notoriously difficult to authenticate, analyze and interpret. In his new book titled “Hacks, Leaks, and Revelations: The Art of Analyzing Hacked and Leaked Datasets”, Micah Lee, The Intercept’s Director of Information Security and open-source software developer, is offering practical advice on how to download, research, analyze and report on leaked datasets. The book was released Jan. 9, 2024, and Micah recommends it to journalists, researchers and activists.

“You’ll engage head-on with the dumpster fire that is 21st century current events: the rise of neo fascism and the rejection of objective reality, the extreme partisan divide, and an internet overflowing with misinformation.”

– Micah Lee, Director of Information Security, The Intercept

Examining the ethics of deploying OSINT in armed conflict zones

The intelligence collected from publicly available sources is having a dramatic impact on armed conflicts around the globe. There is, however, a potential downside to having an unregulated flow of information, when OSINT might create risks for civilians’ lives, rights and safety – in ways that are not yet fully understood.

Legal researcher and OSINT analyst Ed Millett sets out to understand how international humanitarian and human rights laws currently regulate the use of OSINT techniques by both state actors and ordinary citizens in armed conflict settings. He cautions that misuse of OSINT data can negatively impact an individual’s right for privacy, data protection and fair trial, and highlights the need for development of more robust and ethical principles and practices to protect digital rights in conflict settings.

“Open-source intelligence – information gathered from publicly available sources and used for aiding policymaking and decision-making in a military or political context – is becoming a major feature of armed conflict in the 21st century.”

– Ed Millett, Solicitor, legal researcher and open-source analyst based in the UK

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