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The prominence of social media videos and the growing number of commercial satellites has leveled the playing field for citizenry sleuthing and research. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is a growing trend not just for governmental researchers and analysts but hobbyists as well. With the induction of more minds into the field of intelligence research also comes the potential for misinterpretation and even malice. We explore what this means for the world of OSINT and also look at the updates the citizen world has brought to light via social media.
Are online nuclear sleuths an asset or a burden?
Commercial satellites and open-source intelligence have given way to amateur online sleuths and declassified theories about diplomacy. On the one hand, this trend can be seen as a transparent shift allowing for citizen support of intelligence gathering and a tide of free information to the public. On the other hand, untrained eyes can come to the wrong conclusions without proper procedures in place and bad actors may have easier routes for sowing disinformation into the ears of well-meaning researchers.
As the commercial satellites catch up in quality to governmental probes and grow in numbers, there could be a large number of amateur researchers entering what was once a classified and specialized field. These sleuths may have the power to assist the U.S. in some of their efforts but are just as likely to come to the wrong conclusions and negatively impact sensitive negotiations. With the promise comes peril, according to Politico writer Amy Zegart.
“One ecosystem is more open, diffuse, diverse and faster-moving. The other is more closed, tailored, trained and operates much more slowly.”— Amy Zegart, Politico
Russian tanks spotted heading west
Video footage picked up westward movement of Russian military equipment from the far east side of the nation. The equipment included armored vehicles, tanks and rocket artillery in large quantities. A series of TikTok videos from different users show a trend of long trains full of military vehicles and weapons traveling west from four main locations in the east.
Through open-source investigation, the geolocations of the several social media video updates could be determined. Some of the now deleted posts show an overwhelming trend of movement out of Razdol’noe, Khabarovsk, Ulan-Ude and Naushki, Russia, and suggest a strategy to bolster forces on the westward front. Many point to these videos as yet another sign that Russia may soon make moves to invade Ukraine, a growing tension in the region.
“Using knowledge of the length of the train carriages, the DFRLab was able to verify that the length of the containers measured at approximately the same length of an Iskander missile: about seven and a half meters.”— Michael Sheldon, Medium
When will open-source intelligence be considered a full-fledged discipline?
OSINT continues to be seen by the IC as a secondary discipline or "collection of cottage industries,” as former DIA Director Robert Ashley put it. The “underrated” analysis comes despite the growing availability of valuable open source information and OSINT’s important complementary role to other intelligence disciplines. Thanks to human-machine learning, OSINT is effective at alerting analysts to changes in key information and rapid identification of pattern anomalies.
This call for a culture change around OSINT within the IC is hardly new. It’s been well-documented by journalists, former department heads and even a subject of one of our previous roundup articles. Until investments are made in prioritizing OSINT and the artificial intelligence that enables it to be most effective, there will continue to be missed opportunities and readily available leads gone ungathered.
“The discipline allows for information on previously unknown players or new and developing events to become known and allows policymakers to be briefed more competently on a topic as well as providing analysts and operators a preliminary understanding of the region, the culture, the politics, and current nature of a developing or changing state.”— Alan Cunningham, ModernDiplomacy
The rise of cybersquatting and brandjacking online
Cybersquatting, the practice of creating misleading website addresses, has become an increasingly common occurrence. Cybersquatting includes techniques such as domain squatting, combo squatting, typo squatting and doppelganger domains. Creating confusingly similar domain names as existing trademarked ones, adding words to an existing name, registering the typo of an existing name or removing the punctuation mark that delineated main and sub-domains are all cybersquatting techniques that may be utilized by bad actors online. Sometimes these techniques are used to create false government sites in order to scam customers or create disinformation campaigns.
Online infringement may also come in the form of creating unauthorized account names based on existing brands, known as brandjacking, which can then be used to sell counterfeit products or spread disinformation about the brand. Social media companies have policies against such practices and have vowed to counteract these occurrences. Trademark infringement laws can protect brands against many of these practices, with the exception of where the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act interferes with free speech, such as in satirical cases.
“Apart from the domain name itself, there is debate as to whether trademark use within a subdirectory also violates trademark law, with some courts holding that a consumer viewing the subdirectory of a URL would likely experience initial interest confusion, while other courts have held that the appearance of another company’s trademark in the subdirectory does not imply sponsorship or endorsement.”— Susan Neuberger Weller, The National Law Review
Increasing connectivity in the world is leading to more transparency in many intelligence gathering industries. It also paves the way for misinformation and misinterpreted data, especially by untrained counterparts in the citizen world. It is clear from the emergence of social media videos of Russian military movements that OSINT will continue to play an outsized role in international diplomacy.
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