Not only did OSINT assist with accurate news reporting, it also helped the civilians on the ground make well-informed decisions and escape combat zones.
The way the community bonded together to address the war in Ukraine
The last time I did this survey the ‘emerging trend’ that I spoke about was the increase in questionable ethical practices of researchers in the open-source intelligence community, such as geolocations revealing the homes of those in war zones, or sharing of traumatic imagery. This year the trend I have noticed is more simple than that – it is people using OSINT to make quick wins, but getting important facts wrong, often due to a lack of knowledge about the tools or data they’re using.
While the OSINT industry is a community of meticulous, detail-oriented people, I’ve seen a significant trend of more individuals and organisations take up the “flashy” side of OSINT, but not the detailed side of those traits.
I’m more of a buyer into the phrase “slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. Dealing with and analysing data takes time and is not something to be rushed.
I’ve seen this trend predominantly in the reporting on the war in Ukraine, both by so-called analysts, as well as journalists that have decided to enter the foray of using OSINT tools without looking at how they work.
On numerous occasions I have reached out to journalists and analysts to inform them that the evidence used in their piece is incorrect. For example, in one case a news outlet published a large investigation where the journalists had “used open source techniques” to identify a freely available satellite image of a new building and claimed it was built after February 2022 and used for a certain purpose. Unfortunately, the satellite image that they showed was from 2017.
This is not an isolated event and indicates a rather concerning trend as it both tarnishes the industry of detail-orientated analysts. Even more concerning is that it exposes media outlets and individuals to attack vectors by hostile states using these loose threads to potentially destroy their credibility, and that of their peers.
We all know there are hostile states that make a lot of noise about certain issues, and I’d like to think that would not allow for an attack vector of what is such a valuable community.
The other trend, is the subtle indications of the open-source community becoming more fragmented, compartmentalised and less of a collaborative space in comparison to what it once was. It is amazing to see the OSINT community integrate more into media headlines and gain larger audiences, but that in turn feeds back into the community making it more competitive, less-collaborative, encourages credit-stealing, and cause tensions amongst those who already deal with the world’s worst content every waking hour.
It is not surprising this is happening, but it is a stark reminder that we should champion the projects we’ve worked on where collaboration has worked, and highlight the strength of what amazing achievements can be met when people collaborate, which is something media agencies can learn from the open source community.
For me, 2022 is the year of the sheet. And not the ones on my bed. Rather, much of my time has been amongst the cells and rows of extremely complex and large sheets where teams of up to 70 people are in at once, working all for the same cause, all doing geolocation and verification simultaneously.
Along with that comes a lot of tricks that allow for the added benefit of automated functions, time saving through automatically capturing certain bits of information, and what we’re left with is a database to map, visualise, identify trends, and use as a fundamental launchpad for investigative work.
I also really like those late-night sessions where folks randomly start saying “hi” to each other amongst the cells of a conflict database. It’s bright moments like that amongst the dark content that we need a little more of.
If 2022 is anything to go by, the mission for 2023 is going to have to be ‘overcome and adapt’, and that’s kind of always been the case for this landscape, so 2023 will be no different.
At the time of writing this, I’m getting more community members asking for my private contact details to ‘stay in touch’, because like many in this community, I first joined as a hobbyist and made a lot of friendships out of this. My ‘hangout space’ would be the community on a specific platform, where we’d talk in DMs, interact, and engage on group efforts. With that community at risk there’s more of a focus on keeping that contact so it’s not lost. As a reflection on this, in 2023 I’m hoping to see more meetups, more community events and more groups.
The other side of the 2023 landscape, I predict, is the surge of private sector OSINT. I think we’re already seeing this in 2022. Governments are starting to see the value of OSINT organisations, especially after Ukraine, and more news is coming out of hostile states and threat actors also building their own OSINT capabilities - in one example, a country was referred to as having some 100,000 analysts dedicated to sifting through troves of open-source data. So where small organisations are doing compelling OSINT work on the back of less than 100 employees, rival states are clearly in abundance of that, and I think we’re going to see both a catch-up game, but also contrasting variations as to what OSINT work looks like, especially in the private sector.
Further to that, I think in the justice and accountability realm we’re really going to see more of the OSINT work displayed and relied upon. And that’s not just in the legal sense of war crimes, but also in the facilitation of efforts to carry out short-term accountability measures, such as sanctions - where OSINT plays a strong role in providing the adequate evidence needed to fulfil gaps in evidence.
Twitter: @Bendobrown, YouTube (youtube.com/@Bendobrown) Website: (benjaminstrick.com) Work: (info-res.org) Work Twitter: (@Cen4infoRes)
Join the community, meet up offline, have hackathons, share skills, help others and keep learning. This community is really so awesome, and the more you put into it, the more you get in return.