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As Russia continues its campaign in Ukraine, the propaganda war has heightened and so too have the efforts of open-source intelligence (OSINT) researchers to document what appear to be war crimes. In response, the west has imposed more severe sanctions and costs on the regime, including seizing an oligarch’s yacht and sanctioning Putin’s adult daughters.
From the proliferation of satellite imagery to the continued engagement of amateur OSINT researchers on Twitter, it’s clear that innovation in technology is playing a larger role than ever before both on the ground and in the aftermath of what plays out.
A Russian oligarch’s yacht has been seized in Spain at the request of the United States government. The owner, Viktor Vkeslberg, is a Russian billionaire with close ties to Putin. The seizure is part of the efforts of the US Justice Department’snewly formed special unit called KleptoCapture, dedicated to enforcing sanctions against Russian government officials and oligarchs.
The unit reportedly includes prosecutors, special agents, money laundering and tax enforcement experts, as well as security analysts. They won’t be the only ones tracking oligarch movements either. The 19-year-old student who rose to fame by tracking Elon Musk’s private jet has also turned his attention to following Russian oligarchs, as well as many other OSINT researchers in the field.
“The US Justice Department said the $90 million superyacht, dubbed "Tango," was seized based on alleged violations of US bank fraud, money laundering and sanctions statutes.— Whitney Wild and Devan Cole, CNN
Russia has been waging a disinformation war since long before its troops crossed the border into Ukraine in late February. The organization of these campaigns is surprisingly controlled and efficient. Recently a group of more than 65,000 Telegram group followers were directed to attack a Ukrainian singer by the name of Jamala in response to her posting a series of photos with the Ukrainian flag in Britain. The group members were instructed to use VPNs to circumvent the Kremlin’s nationwide ban on Instagram and flood the comments of the regional celebrity.
The Telegram channel behind these troll directives is called “Cyber Front Z.” It is often used to boost Kremlin-backed videos and articles on various social media platforms. It also continues to push the narrative that Russia is defending itself or responding to Ukrainian nazism and crimes of genocide, all debunked disinformation narratives from Russia to justify its war efforts. Kremlin backers call it a “people’s army” but undercover journalists were able to enroll as employees paid to post a minimum number of comments per day.
“Fontanka reporter Ksenia Klochkova went undercover as a paid troll at Cyber Front Z and was offered a monthly salary of around $431.96. She was given access to fake accounts and instructed what to write and where to post her comments.”— David Gilbert, Vice
The U.S. government has officially called Russian military actions war crimes. any hope of future accountability would take large swaths of evidence– something citizen researchers have set their sights on compiling. The online collaboration of professional and amateur researchers reviewing publicly available information could prove to be a turning point in documenting war crimes.
Human rights groups face challenges documenting these crimes on the ground while also participating in territorial defense efforts. The global OSINT community is now lending its resources to the effort and making fast work of analyzing, authenticating and documenting reports that come out of the conflict zone. Even with more newcomers taking up online sleuthing efforts by the day, there is a lot of work to be done according to experts in the field. A lack of training for the evidentiary standards of international criminal court could prove tricky among an amateur-led coalition.
“For those working in the field, there is at once hope that there will be accountability, and yet frustration at how hard it is to achieve. Those on the frontlines in Ukraine right now feel this acutely. Oleksandra Matviychuk describes the pain of learning of such a high volume of terrible crimes and not being able to stop them.”— Henning Lahmann, Just Security
Russia’s navy has begun to paint over its ship numbers and has taken away troops’ cell phones, more evidence that the Kremlin has become increasingly aware of the OSINT community’s ability to gather critical information about their military. The tracking of maritime activities has been carried out by several citizen researchers on Twitter. Via the widespread availability of satellite imagery and photos and videos, researchers have been able to track movements and note operations of the navy and other military branches.
**UPDATE**— H I Sutton (@CovertShores) March 22, 2022
Russian warship, likely Admiral Grigorovich Class Frigate, shot 8 x Kalibr cruise missiles from Sevastopol, Crimea around 8pm tonight
Reposted to correct errors
Nod @detresfa_ pic.twitter.com/ryA30XMdlu
At times, the OSINT community’s reports come prior to official government intelligence releases or can even be in stark contrast to them. The increase in publicly available information (PAI) has led to more amatuer sleuths sharing information about the Russian invasion, however, that is not to say that analyzing documents, satellite imagery and data is without skill. Many rely on past experiences, whether military, security or otherwise, to inform their notions on what conclusions can be drawn from the swaths of data. Some simply enjoy dedicating hours, days or weeks to help the Ukrainian effort.
“‘I haven’t seen a conflict this well-covered (through the OSINT community) in my career,” said Lukas Andriukaitis, associate director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank, in a phone interview. “You can watch the conflict almost evolve live.’”— Alison Bath, Stars and Stripes
Among the growing community of OSINT researchers is Kyle Glen, a project manager by day and hobbyist researcher by evening. His Twitter account @ConflictNews analyzes and posts the whereabouts of Russian troop movements. Satellite imagery from services like SkyWatch allowed him to watch the massing of Russian troops on the border prior to the conflict. Private companies now have many satellites in the sky that are able to capture images of the war and distribute them online.
The number of satellites compared to even a conflict as recent as the war in Syria was unmatched with what’s publicly available now. The exponential increase in this technology makes it easy for anyone to access high-quality images from around the globe. The movement is fueling a new generation of analysts, not in the Department of Defense, but behind home office keyboards and social media accounts.
“Although militaries have vast intelligence resources that they rely on beyond social media, there is no knowing how satellite images of troop movements shared on Twitter, or Facebook, could influence operational decisions on the ground. ”— Chris Baraniuk, BBC News
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 cyber threats, federal intelligence strategies and much more. Find us on Twitter and share the OSINT news you’re keeping up with.
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