by Andrew Orlowski
Monday, 28
March 2022
Analysis
07:30

OSINT is having a bad war

Open source intelligence cannot see through the fog of war
by Andrew Orlowski
There is only so much that can be revealed by Google maps

The invasion of Ukraine has been heralded as a renaissance for OSINT, in which amateur enthusiasts pore over online evidence to extract GPS co-ordinates, or match them to Google Street View imagery. New York magazine heaped praise on the “Jack Ryans of OSINT”, who were “feasting on the Ukrainian conflict”. In the article, the Atlantic Council’s Lukas Andriukaitis sounds thrilled, explaining: “there’s no need to rely on a huge network of spies because guess what? It’s out there for free.” RUSI’s Matt Freear heralds OSINT as a counter to crude and often inept Russian state disinformation — but OSINT isn’t having a good war.

Take, for example, the reports about Russian forces in Ukraine had resorting to using analog phones. Apparently, this was because they’d destroyed the 4G masts they needed. It was either that, or the state-of-the-art Russian 4G Era system had been delivered, but didn’t work. One of the two. Or perhaps neither: they may not have been using analog radios at all. A deadline was approaching and corroborating any of these three possible accounts was a fruitless waste of time.

Two of these suggestions had been given wings by Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian businessman and media executive with extensive experience in Dutch radio and advertising. Since January, Grozev has been Executive Director (or sometimes it’s CEO) of the Bellingcat blog, the site credited with popularising open source intelligence, or as its advocates love to be styled, OSINT. Launched from a living room in Leicester almost a decade ago, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins is now the site’s creative director, a title more commonly associated with a movie studio or advertising agency.

In the early days of the invasion, Grozev retweeted photos of plastic tags he suggested were “RU tactical secrets… target tagging by advanced SSG teams or local assets”. They were Ukrainian civilian field surveyor’s tags. Grozev regularly reports gossip purportedly from deep inside the Kremlin — promotions, demotions and other court struggles — suggesting he has access to intelligence as potent as the NSA’s. And perhaps he does; almost 400,000 Twitter users follow him.

OSINT operations would dearly love to be bask in the authority and swagger of professional intelligence agencies. The self-important OSINT label begs a comparison with MILINT (military intelligence) or SIGINT (signals intelligence). But in reality, OSINT enthusiasts are turning rumour into a giant online game. We’re drowning in unverifiable stuff flying under the OSINT flag, and it’s revealing flaws in the proposition.

There’s only so much Google Street View can tell you. The hunt for a tell-tale serial number or GPS co-ordinate renders the larger ebb and flow of battle opaque. Corroboration should be the hallmark of reliable information, but the OSINT feeds are awash in online arguments over ancient photos and battlefield trivia. For example, a photo showing smoke rising from the Russian embassy in Warsaw was proclaimed by one OSINT feed this week to be a prelude to an invasion of Poland by Russia (Russian diplomatic staff have apparently not discovered electric paper shredders.)

Underlying the enthusiasm for OSINT is a New Media myth that’s almost as old as the internet itself. The myth places OSINT in the lineage of wise crowds, Smart Mobs, or citizen journalism. In each case an amateur army in possession of collective intelligence creates a new kind of knowledge. These myths have acquired a quasi-religious status today. When we look to OSINT for hard facts, however, the fog of war has never seemed thicker.

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Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 months ago

There is a bitter tone to this article that, combined with references to a few flawed OSINT claims, suggest the writer is grinding an axe.

I’ve found these OSINT sources have provided more information that helps one form a much better perspective. I don’t treat their claims as tablets of stone, but contributions to be filtered with other sources.

He can’t even proof read his own writing:
“OSINT operations would dearly love to be bask in the authority”
Doesn’t say much for his boasted of accuracy. The fog of writing?

So I think he is way off base when he states “ When we look to OSINT for hard facts, however, the fog of war has never seemed thicker.” OSINT has been very insightful in my view.

Last edited 6 months ago by Ian Stewart
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago

What was the point of this article? That amateur sleuths on social media and the like probably isn’t a reliable source of information for a war zone? Who’d have thunk it!

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
6 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Ther problem is that there are many out there who DO believe that amateur sleuths on social media ARE a reliable source of information for a war zone.

John Hicks
John Hicks
6 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

It does seem pointless other than to ridicule and belittle attempts (Bellingcat and others) to expose truth without providing any substantiation for the author “to bask in the authority of his own.”

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago
Reply to  John Hicks

I found the dig at Bellingcat strange because they’ve had some good results in the past, including fairly recently discovering the hit squad involved in the murder of the Russian dissident Nemtsov

Josh Brieden
Josh Brieden
6 months ago

“The invasion of Ukraine has been heralded as a renaissance for OSINT, in which amateur enthusiasts pore over online evidence to extract GPS co-ordinates, or match them to Google Street View imagery.”
My sense is OSINT only evolved within the last two or three years, what with the hundreds (or more?) sources spawning and flourishing online. And, ‘Google Street View imagery’ was around during Iraq/Afghanistan?
The dozens of sources tracking FlightAware, Flightrader24, marinetraffic.com, etc., etc…. were around back then?
I’m hopelessly behind the times, it seems…

Last edited 6 months ago by Josh Brieden
Rob Wright
Rob Wright
6 months ago

Spooks shred the secrets and then burn the shredding. Them’s the rules.

David Woolley
David Woolley
6 months ago

If you think osint is useless, then you are free to ignore the statistics from oryxspioenkop, or the maps from nrg8000. As with those sites, osint is best when culled by an interested ngo. But it is most useful