This week’s OSINT news roundup covers sleuths and journalists partnering up to find perpetrators of potential war crimes, Telegram propaganda and the potential gaping hole in the U.S. military strategy.

Russia has begun localizing its propaganda efforts to influence the citizens of small towns in its occupied territories of Ukraine. The disinformation effort is taking place on Telegram, an app of increased importance for Ukrainians to communicate during the course of the conflict. Meanwhile, open-source intelligence (OSINT) sleuths and journalists have been analyzing pro-Kremlin Telegram videos to identify potential perpetrators of war crimes.

For the U.S., the data leveraged by OSINT aficionados and analysts may be assisting our allies in Ukraine and elsewhere, but it could present big problems for national security and future military efforts.

Last, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been studying urban warfare strategies. Researchers believe China may be preparing to launch a bid for Taiwan.

Every town’s propaganda

The propaganda efforts in occupied territories of Ukraine have become increasingly specific — hyperlocal Telegram channels are being customized to fit the specific town and the grievances of its citizens. Legitimizing the occupation is the main goal of many of these channels. The channels for each town have boomed in subscribers, even when reception was unavailable from the conflict, leading experts to believe they are mainly bots.

The localized efforts are a key propaganda tool for Russia. Ukrainian researchers are not convinced they are working to change minds. However, the constant stream of disinformation to discredit Ukrainian leaders may help highlight sympathetic audiences as Russia continues its occupation.

“Detector Media said the channels’ propaganda also focuses on local “denazification,” a term that refers to so-called Nazi Ukrainians whom the Russians allegedly caught in the occupied settlements.”

— Suzanne Smalley, CyberScoop

Hunting war criminals online

OSINT researchers online who assist Ukraine’s defense efforts come from diverse backgrounds, rarely official intelligence ones. One researcher uses her degree in Environmental Geology to help geolocate photos. Others see it as a tangible way to lend support to Ukraine from afar. One OSINT aficionado from an energy infrastructure background used his professional expertise to help defend Ukraine against potential power grid attacks.

When identifying the perpetrator of potential war crimes in a video posted to Telegram, the OSINT community teamed up with traditional journalists from France to try to identify the voice speaking over the video of atrocities. The teams were eventually able to connect  the voice as belonging to an internet persona and then, after some analysis, linked it to a real-life identity and handed over the research to authorities.

“Those who participate in the OSINT community come from diverse backgrounds, have rarely worked in the formal governmental intelligence community, and typically focus on defined ‘niches'.”

— Jason Jay Smart, Kyiv Post

Countering OSINT

The surveillance economy has shown uncomfortable weaknesses for modern militaries in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And while the U.S. intelligence community (IC) has been assisting Ukraine to exploit these vulnerabilities in Russia’s army, it may be a foretelling of its own potential intelligence challenges. From personnel exercise routines on Strava to tracking U.S. military activity on apps like Flightradar24, the military may not have a firm grasp on  data that is publicly available on its service members.

Large scale data collection could be as detrimental to the U.S. Army’s military strategy as it has been for Russia’s. Afterall, the first sign of the invasion wasn’t gunfire, it was a Google Maps traffic jam. Public data also presents a larger global security threat. For example, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) has stored the DNA results and location from its globally available prenatal genetic tests. The tests have been taken by more than eight million women around the world. As part of the Army’s information advantage doctrine, assessing the operational risks of open-source data is key.

“For the US Army, a key takeaway from the Ukrainian conflict so far should be the extent to which our modern-day habits are trackable, traceable, and predictable. plan to supplant the U.S. as a superpower.”

— Maggie Smith and Nick Starck, Modern War Institute

The PLA and Taiwan

Evidence shows that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been training and preparing for potential urban warfare. Researchers believe this could have implications for Taiwan and foreshadow “reunification efforts” between China and Taiwan, which would likely involve heavy fighting in Taiwanese cities. China’s military has made significant progress in modernizing its equipment and technology over the last decade.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been observing other urban warfare strategies as part of the PLA’s preparedness, but it still would face challenges in a potential invasion. Namely, international attention and possible American invasion would be chiefly among its possible obstacles. The full report considers what lessons the PLA has gained from studying other operations and what the future of urban warfare for the PLA may look like.

“Within the past decade, the PLA has constructed specialized training facilities to simulate operations in urban environments and undertaken exercises that have contributed to establishing baseline proficiency in this style of combat.”

— A Elsa B. Kania and Ian Burns McCaslin, institute for the Study of War

State Dept. enhances OSINT posture

The State Department is setting up an office dedicated to open-source intelligence. The intelligence branch is upgrading its operations and seeking to coordinate with open sources. Brett Holmgren, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research said on Inside the IC, “Our vision is intelligence empowering diplomacy.” The organization is now working to realize that vision and take steps to implement and improve open-source intelligence in the department.

The office is part of a new strategic plan of the bureau. The plan includes a new mobile data accessibility strategy and other efforts to modernize the department’s technology. The department is also prioritizing recruiting individuals from diverse backgrounds to help inform their intelligence efforts.

““Being able to leverage open source in a fundamentally different way than we’ve done so to date will allow us to share our best insights at the unclassified, FOUO, or the sensitive but unclassified level, on new platforms to our diplomats overseas,” Holmgren said on Inside the IC.”

— Justin Doubleday, Federal News Network

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, as well as geopolitical updates from China. 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.