Stay up to date with the latest OSINT news from around the world

This week’s open-source intelligence (OSINT) news from around the world includes updates from the war in Ukraine and social media disinformation. NASA’s wildfire tool is helping journalists and researchers quickly uncover areas of conflict on the ground in Ukraine. Meanwhile, no one can agree on the number of casualties Russians have suffered, with widely varying figures. A new research program is releasing reports about credible accusations of war crimes Russian soldiers have committed.

An intelligence organization that studies extremism on alternative social media sites has noticed an increase in participation and a lack of moderation as the larger sites have cracked down on conspiracy theories and misinformation. The Department of Defense is also updating its social media policies as it deals with a wave of imposter accounts targeting its personnel.

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

Using NASA tools to track the war

The NASA-developed Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) was originally intended to assist firefighters track wildfires around the globe through heat-based imaging. Now, however, researchers and journalists have discovered the map database of wildfires viewed by NASA’s satellites can also track fires from bombing and artillery. With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the database has become a record of high-impact fighting.

By mapping large fires, NASA is inadvertently helping journalists and analysts geolocate areas of fighting and verify authenticity of photos and videos. It can also help corroborate reports of where missiles have been fired and other large-scale attacks. FIRMS can help those tracking the war be tipped off to areas of fighting from afar. However, its system still requires some analysis. Since it was designed to indicate wildfires, sometimes those fires from natural causes can be confused with signs of warfare. Similarly, it may pick up smokestacks from factories or other “false positive” signs. But the software gives researchers a great place to start when it comes to tracking the war in Ukraine.

“I mostly use it to look at areas where I know heavy fighting is occurring to try and get an idea of where the front lines are, I also use it to try and help with geolocation of videos of fires burning.”

Kyle Glen, in The Daily Beast

De-platformed: extremists and social media

A threat intelligence company, Pyrra, which tracks extremism on alternative social media sites has noticed a new trend. As social media giants, such as Twitter and Facebook, begin to increase moderation of extremists and conspiracy theorists, more of those users have flocked to alternative social media sites. In these increasingly polarized social media platforms, the political echo chamber creates opportunity for “endless amplification” of disinformation, according to Dr. Welton Chang of Pyrra. 

These smaller and more fringe social media sites often do little to no content moderation in comparison to sites like Facebook or Twitter, making it possible for conspiracy theories or misinformation to spread like wildfire. Once an idea gains traction there, it may make its way onto the bigger platforms.

“I think we’ve entered a new phase in which social media has altered and warped how we encounter information, how we process it, how we internalize what counts as the truth. It’s having significant impacts on our democracy.”

Dr. Welton Chang, in ProPublica

A new information hub to gather evidence of war crimes

A new hub called the Conflict Observatory has been created to document and analyze publicly available evidence of war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine. The project supported by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has already released substantial reports of verified Geneva Convention breaches of the protection of civilians including forced deportation. Alleged purposeful damage to healthcare and educational facilities are also being documented in the reports.

“‘Filtration’ is defined within the context of this report as the multi-step system Russia and its proxies have deployed in territory they currently occupy within Ukraine to register, interrogate, and, in some cases, indefinitely detain people in these territories.”

Conflict Observatory

The DOD funding for the program is part of a global effort to gather and publish evidence in order to hold Russian military leaders accountable for the numerous reports of war crimes against the Ukrainian people. By judiciously reporting and shining a light on such transgressions, the hub can also hope to discourage future crimes against humanity.

Their most recent publication “maps a system of filtration facilities and processes employed by Russia and Russia-aligned forces to screen Ukrainian civilians, former combatants (including potential prisoners of war), and other people present in Donetsk oblast beginning in March 2022.”

A new DOD social media policy

The DOD is responding to the increased threat of impersonated DOD officials on social media sites. The new department-wide social media policy, DOD Instruction 5400.17, “spells out the need for public affairs officers and other personnel to combat adversaries’ efforts to impersonate DOD officials or hijack their accounts.”

With imposter accounts, adversaries can disseminate disinformation or discredit official DOD reports. Many of the accounts are obviously fraudulent when inspected. Signs of impersonation include having few followers, few photos and only being recently created, along with not having verification or official association.

The threat and updated policy is in part due to the increased use of social media sites like Twitter for officials in the department  to share public information and discourse. Cyber-vandalism is another worry for the department, which is when an outside party takes control of an official agency channel. The DOD now has a response toolkit for such incidents.

“Steps that public affairs chiefs and social media managers are directed to take include reporting fake or imposter accounts through the social media platform’s reporting system; establishing local procedures to identify, review, and report fake or imposter accounts; and notifying operations security officials of fake or imposter accounts…”

Maria Zuppello, FedScoop

The surprisingly vague numbers on Russian casualties

With traditional and social media dutifully documenting and reporting on each development on the war in Ukraine, one might assume the number of casualties of Russian soldiers would be either a known or estimable number. According to Grid, the varying estimates of casualties range from 1,351 to 43,000, the latter being a number quoted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a recent statement. That number seems to be pulled from the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s official tally on social media. Unsurprisingly, the former is the official count from the Russian government itself.

Inflating or deflating these numbers is strategic for appearing victorious in the war efforts, making neither party particularly reliable. But even the CIA director and NATO have widely different numbers, one estimating 15,000 killed and the other closer to 75,000. As each side seems to have resigned to a steady erosion of the other’s personnel and equipment, reminiscent of the trench-style warfare of the first World War, the numbers could prove predictive of the outcome. If the larger estimates prove to be correct, Russia may have a problem staffing its war.

“[The disparity in estimates] serve as reminders that counting casualties is an inexact science, often tangled in politics and misinformation.”

Joshua Keating, GRID

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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