OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) is a number of technologies used to collect and analyse information from open sources. Journalists have been actively using these technologies for a fairly long time, with one prominent example being the Bellingcat group. By simply analysing photos from social media and Google Maps, they were able to reconstruct the route from Russia to Ukraine taken by the Buk air defence system (which shot down the Malaysian Boeing 777). OSINT does not violate any laws as it uses publicly available data, after which it simply becomes a matter of analysing it correctly. One advantage of OSINT over traditional intelligence methods is both its low cost and low entry threshold. Gone are the days when obtaining important information meant the use of expensive spy equipment and a network of agents operating in another country — a home computer and a few specialised programs will now suffice.
OSINT is a prime example of how modern warfare leaves the enemy with limited hiding options, and also how it has evolved into a ‘people's war’. Through the use of special systems, information is collected from the Internet. It is then used to assist with the planning of offensives, the identification of weak points in the enemy's defence, the location of point targets, as well as to gain other advantages on the battlefield. Open sources are primarily used to link objects to the terrain, confirm the success of air and artillery strikes, assess the state of infrastructure, and identify military personnel.
There are now numerous articles available on the Internet that provide Ukrainians with instructions on how they can support the Ukrainian Armed Forces by analysing open source information, and OSINT is indeed playing a crucial role in the ongoing conflict. Apart from amateur efforts, there are also private companies in Ukraine that use social media to track Russian soldiers and gather other intelligence about the enemy. This data has enabled the Ukrainian Armed Forces to successfully target Russian troops on multiple occasions. Artem Starosiek, the CEO of Molfar, a company created from a division of the rocket and satellite technology organisation Noosphere, spoke to Foreign Policy magazine about the company’s work. With 56 employees, Molfar conducts open source investigations and shares the results with the Ukrainian army, which then uses the intelligence provided to plan and execute military operations. However, the Security Service of Ukraine is yet to confirm its partnership with Molfar, likely for security reasons.
Starosiek shared two successful cases conducted by Molfar with Foreign Policy. On October 12, 2022, Russian serviceman Alexei Lebedev posted a photo of himself in military uniform on VKontakte. He covered his face with a balaclava, but did not bother to hide the location from which the message was sent — the village of Svobodnoye in the south of the Donetsk region. This lead was passed on to an analyst at Molfar’s OSINT division, who, over the next few hours, determined the location of Lebedev's military unit by finding two other photographs posted from the same location. As a result, the location of a training base of the Russian armed forces was identified. The results of this investigation were passed on to Ukrainian intelligence, and, two days later, a series of explosions occurred in the same location. The number of victims is unknown, but Lebedev survived and went on to delete his photograph.
In the second case, reports began to appear across Russian media in May that 240 volunteer soldiers from Chechnya had arrived in the town of Rubizhne in the Severodonetsk district of the Luhansk region. Using photos from Regnum and videos from RT, Molfar was able to pinpoint the exact location of these troops. The details that made it possible to identify the target after establishing its approximate location were so insignificant that the reporters in question could not have even imagined that they were revealing the whereabouts of the soldiers. Although the RT report lacked any general shots of the area, the footage indicated the presence of towering residential structures and in one of the photos published by Regum, a rectangular roofline of a kindergarten could be deciphered. Using Google Earth, Molfar analysts pinpointed the specific building where the military personnel were stationed and shared this information with Ukrainian intelligence, this ultimately led to a rocket attack on the target.
Over the last decade, there has been a rising demand for OSINT services across the world, but the conflict in Ukraine has significantly propelled the expansion of this market. This has had a particular impact on industry leaders, such as Recorded Future and Janes, the Dataminr platform (which detects the earliest signals of high-impact events and emerging risks from within publicly available data) and commercial satellite imagery providers like Orbital Insight and Planet Labs. According to research conducted by VMR, the global OSINT market, which was valued at $5.14 billion in 2021, could surge to a value of $35 billion by 2030.Following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, several new OSINT projects have been established in the country, including the Ukrainian Digital Verification Laboratory, OSINT for Ukraine, Ukrainian Weapons Tracker, and the North Atlantic Fellas Organization. However, it should be noted that the Russian military has also employed the same methods. In response to a report aired on the 16th of April by the Ukrainian TV channel ‘1 + 1’, Russia carried out a missile strike on the Kyiv Armored Vehicle Plant. This incident prompted discussions in Ukraine about journalistic responsibility during wartime. Around the same time, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine issued an order outlining the boundaries journalists needed to be aware of during the period of martial law. Although he did not provide specific instructions regarding when and what to film, the order set out a number of guidelines, namely that journalists publish material from places that had been shelled with a minimum delay of 12 hours, collaborate closely with the military when publishing a report, and always consider the possible ramifications of their work concerning the use of OSINT.