The use of Open-source intelligence, known to practitioners as OSINT, in Ukraine, is transforming the way information and intelligence are collected, analyzed, produced, and disseminated.
Although intelligence has been a crucial element of warfare since time immemorial, the increasingly widespread availability of open-source intelligence tools to civilians is dramatically changing the intelligence landscape.
In Ukraine, OSINT has been used to predict attacks, track troop movements, document alleged war crimes, and provide up-to-date live coverage of events. For intelligence agencies, the rising prevalence of OSINT poses opportunities and difficulties. Given the high intensity and significant geopolitical consequences posed by the war in Ukraine, the conflict will set new precedents for the use of OSINT and intelligence in the future.
What is OSINT?
According to the European Union’s definition, “Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is the practice of collecting and analyzing information gathered from open sources to produce actionable intelligence.”
Open sources are those which are publically available. Social media content and imagery provided by commercial satellites are among the most common sources of OSINT.
OSINT analysts often work in the private sector for commercial firms. A niche community of amateur enthusiasts is also active online and often share their output on social media sites like Twitter.
National intelligence services are likewise heavily involved in the collection, processing, and analysis of OSINT, which is used in combination with more traditional forms of intelligence like human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT).
The potential usefulness of open-source intelligence in the Ukraine war became immediately evident at the outset of the conflict.
In the months leading up to the Russian invasion, commercially available satellite imagery and videos shared on social media platforms like TikTok enabled journalists to cross-reference claims that Russian forces were massing on the borders of Ukraine to prepare for an attack with a broad range of evidence.
Notably, Professor Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute examined road traffic reports on Google Maps to identify a jam on the Russian side of the border at 15:15 on February 24. “Someone’s on the move,” he tweeted, alluding to the mass of Russian troops, just three hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin commenced the invasion of Ukraine.
OSINT has continued to be used on a widespread basis as the war has progressed. For example, when Ukrainian forces recaptured Kherson, images and videos began circulating on social media platforms like Telegram almost immediately.
Amateur analysts and professionals tracked the Ukrainian advance toward Kherson using geo-location techniques and satellite imagery. Whereas in previous conflicts, news of a major military victory or defeat could take hours, days, or even weeks to spread beyond the battlefield, the wartime news cycle in Ukraine is constant, largely due to OSINT.
“The conflict in Ukraine can in some ways be viewed as the first digital war, and much of that digital capability is coming from commercially available services rather than necessarily traditional military capabilities,” says British military officer General Sir Jim Hockenhull.
“The availability of commercial satellites has enabled an extension of reach in the Ukrainian military’s situational awareness and their ability to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance,” continues Hockenhull.
According to Hockenhull, the impact of OSINT in the conflict has been widespread. For instance, the crowdsourcing of intelligence has enabled Ukrainian citizens to report the locations of Russian units, thereby increasing the situational awareness of the Ukrainian military.
OSINT has also been used for the purposes of information warfare, as a public confidence-boosting tool, and as a force multiplier.