Russian Invasion of Ukraine: OSINT's Finest Hour


With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, OSINT is experiencing his hour of glory. Indeed, if theopen-source intelligence – namely the exploitation of sources of information accessible to all (newspapers, websites, conferences, etc.) for intelligence purposes – is widely used to counter the dissemination of fake news and disinformation, it is also of great tactical, even strategic assistance, to glean information of a military nature.

In this context, it seems important to recall what OSINT is, as well as the way it is used and the organizational and governance issues associated with it.

Where does OSINT come from?

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv supporters have used OSINT extensively to verify information circulating on the Internet, particularly on social media, and, where appropriate, unmask fake news.

The origin of OSINT dates back to World War II. It was at this time that the President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service (FBMS), whose mission was to listen to, transcribe and analyze the propaganda programs designed and broadcast by the 'Axis. Developed following the attack on Pearl Harbor, this program will become the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service, called to be placed under the authority of the CIA. In 1939, parallel to the American structure, the British charged the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to deploy a service intended to scrutinize the written press and radio broadcasts to produce the “Digest of Foreign Broadcasts”, which will become the “Summary of World Broadcasts” (SWB) and then the BBC Monitoring.

The Cold War accentuated these practices of observing open information, quickly making the latter a major element of intelligence, even his main source of information, including on adversary capabilities and political intentions. Their use also makes it possible to identify and anticipate threats and issue the first alerts.

However, the term OSINT only really appeared in the 1980s on the occasion of the US intelligence reform, which has become necessary to adapt to new information needs, particularly in terms of tactics on the battlefield. The Intelligence Reorganization Act was completed in 1992. It was followed in 1994 by the creation, within the CIA, of the Community Open Source Program and the Community Open Source Program Office (COSPO).

[Nearly 70 readers trust The Conversation newsletter to better understand the world's major issues. Subscribe today]

The September 11 attacks are a “game changer” for OSINT. Indeed, it was following the 2004 reform on intelligence and the prevention of terrorism, theIntelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act that was created, in 2005, the Open Source Center (CSO) responsible for filtering, transcribing, translating, interpreting and archiving news and information from all types of media.

If OSINT was born from the need to capture information for military purposes, the private sector was quick to seize these techniques, particularly in the sphere ofEconomic intelligence. This discipline has undergone many changes over the course of its development: in the early days, it was a matter of accessing content containing information that was sometimes difficult to obtain, but the explosion of new technologies has oriented OSINT more towards the identification of relevant information among the multitude of those available. This is how the tools and methods capable of sorting out this information and, in particular, of discerning those likely to be misleading or falsified, have been developed.

In Ukraine, an already relatively old use

If OSINT has won its acclaim in Ukraine by allowing certain content to be validated or invalidated, in particular broadcast on social networks since February 2022, we must go back further in time to measure its real rise in power.

Indeed, from the Maidan revolution in 2014, pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass and their supporters disseminated a great deal of content whose rhetoric, supported by Moscow, sought to discredit the new government in kyiv. The magnitude was such that Westerners quickly spoke of hybrid war (even if the term continues to do the subject of debate) to describe information mobilization. We also speak of “information warfare” – that is to say the art of information warfare – which is used in times of conflict as well as in times of peace.

Quickly, structures from civil society are put in place to discredit fake news, the number of which is exploding on the web. Beyond these initiatives, many Internet users are beginning to check the content that reaches them and to familiarize themselves with basic tools to, for example, identify or geo-locate an image, in order to see if it is really representative of the subject it is supposed to illustrate.

Some communities thus specialize in more or less specific areas. For exemple, informnapalm is dedicated to content relating to military subjects and, by not limiting itself only to Ukraine, has set up a database which notably lists Russian pilots active in the Syrian theater. This is a strength of OSINT: it transcends physical borders and thus enables the development of transnational communities.

This know-how, acquired by necessity since 2014, has been reinforced over time, in particular thanks to the waves of disinformation linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. These networks enabled the Ukrainians and their supporters to be immediately very operational at the start of the war. In addition, the growing need for journalists to verify their sources has also contributed to developing the use of OSINT which, having a multitude of tools often available in Open Source, facilitates the practice of fact checking.

Thus, many publications now explain how, using OSINT means, they have validated or invalidated such or such content.

Issue of governance and network consolidation

As we can see, one of the strengths of OSINT consists in relying on a civil society that is perfectly legitimate to take action on its own according to its centers of interest. This dynamic has enabled the creation of effective and transnational networks.

However, if States can also deploy OSINT skills, a major challenge remains: coordinating needs and capabilities. Indeed, states may benefit from seizing effective OSINT networks, particularly in a conflict context. However, in addition to the risk relating to the infiltration of these networks, the capacity to identify the needs of the State and to put them in contact with the community likely to meet them represents a major difficulty.

From an organizational point of view, in the medium and long term, this also raises the question of the structuring of the OSINT resource for governments. In the case of Ukraine, the government is still young, independence dating back to August 1991. In addition, forced since 2014 to face a conflict then, since February 2022 to a massive invasion, the problem can be difficult to solve. In fact, it is a question of finding a balance between the urgency of the daily management of the conflict and the establishment of an organization whose purpose would be to manage OSINT with regard to the centralization of needs, their transmission or strengthening a pool of skills.

To try to respond to this problem, a needs audit project, prior to the development of an organizational and legal framework, has been set up. Driven by theInstitute for Information Security – an NGO created in 2015 and focused on issues relating to information security both for the State and for society and individuals –, the project “Strengthening the Institutional Capacity of Public Actors to Counteract Disinformation” (Strengthening the institutional capacity of public actors to fight disinformation) began in April 2022 when the conflict was already raging. It is due to end in March 2023. Its objective is to improve the institutional capacity of Ukrainian public authorities and civil society institutions to identify and combat disinformation.

At the same time, an OSINT Center of Excellence project was launched, in particular supported by Dmitro Zolotukhin, Ukrainian Deputy Minister for Information Policy from 2017 to 2019, and carried out in partnership with the Mohyla University of kyiv and with the private sector, in particular Ukrainian. Its purpose is to build a bridge between the different strata of society to constitute a place of research and development. This approach is clearly in line with that which presided over the creation of the NATO-led Centers of Excellence – which, in Tallinn, focus on the cyber defense, in Riga on the strategic communication and in Vilnius on the energy security – or in that of the European Center of Excellence for the fight against hybrid threats of Helsinki.

OSINT, beyond Ukraine

It remains to be seen whether the Westerners who support Ukraine will also support this project even though this country is today a flagship point of OSINT and the EU, which take very seriously the risks associated with disinformation, particularly since the pandemic, has just reinforced its arsenal against these hostile actions, in particular through its code of good practice published in 2022.

Finally, even if many of our fellow citizens associate OSINT with Ukraine and the Russian invasion, confining it to the current war would be excessively restrictive. Here again, the Ukrainian conflict is in the process of revealing issues that go far beyond the country's physical borders.

Christine Dugoin-Clement, Geopolitical analyst, associate member of the IAE Paris - Sorbonne Business School Research Laboratory, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, “standards and risks” chair, IAE Paris - Sorbonne Business School

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Recent articles >

Summary of news from March 22, 2023

By The Editorial Board
outlined-grey clock icon

Recent news >