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The rise of the Twitter spies

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Published Mar 26, 2022

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On most days, Kyle Glen is an ordinary 29-year-old working a clinical research job in Wales. But on March 6, as videos claiming to show the Russian army bombing a civilian escape route surfaced on Telegram, his alternate identity kicked in: Twitter spy.

Some believed the video was faked to smear Russia; others pointed to it as evidence of Russian aggression. Glen's task: verify if it was real.

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In the footage, he found a landmark - an Orthodox church with four golden domes. He located it in Irpin, using Google Maps and a file photograph from the Associated Press to generate its precise coordinates. A scan of Discord, Reddit and Twitter revealed chatter from witnesses of the bombing. Twelve minutes after spotting the footage, he felt confident the video was real and posted the work on his Twitter account.

"The way wars and conflicts are now, they're so fast moving, there's a lot of information. [Things] can get missed," Glen said. "I think it's really useful that there are people doing this as a hobby."

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine has unfolded at a blistering pace over social media, it has swollen the ranks of hobbyist spies such as Glen. Armed with day jobs or coursework, the self-proclaimed open source intelligence - or "OSINT" - community tracks every movement of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries online. Five weeks into the war, their findings are affecting strategy on the ground.

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Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's minister of digital transformation, said in an interview with The Washington Post that the community's work is crucial for his country - so much so that a Ukrainian government app, called Diia, now allows citizens to field geotagged pictures and videos of Russian troop movements.

"We're getting tens of thousands of reports per day," Fedorov said through a translator. "They're very, very useful."

Much of the work could be more impactful in the long term. Activists, scholars and media professionals are using their data to create a verified timeline of conflict that could affect how countries are held accountable for war crimes.

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"It's horrible that one hospital has been bombed," Benjamin Strick, a digital investigator with the Center for Information Resilience nonprofit, said in an interview. "But showing a pattern of these attacks is more important in the bigger picture."

By most accounts, hobbyist tracking started gaining traction in 2011, during the Arab Spring in the Middle East. Smartphone and social media use was on a sharp rise, unleashing unfiltered images of conflict to the general public for the first time in history. This reached a turning point in 2014, when open source intelligence was used to track Russia's invasion of Crimea, and provide evidence of the country's involvement in shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, research scholars noted. Last year, during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, hobbyists disseminated intelligence online that federal agencies relied on to find rioters.

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine has brought an unusual influx of interested participants, ready to provide the general public with a real-time view of the war, researchers and intelligence hobbyists said.

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In recent weeks, established hobbyists have seen their social media followings grow by the thousands. Media outlets such as The Washington Post and the New York Times have used the community's work in their visual investigations. Project Owl, a private community for open source intelligence gatherers, has seen its membership base grow from 15,000 members five weeks ago to nearly 30,000 presently, the group's moderators said.

It's "utterly explosive," one of the Project Owl moderators, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity, citing security reasons, said in an interview.

The boom comes due to a confluence of forces, experts noted. Ukrainians are primed to share content about the war over social media, having done the same after Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014. Internet service remains, and the tactics of open source gatherers have matured over the past decade, demonstrating the potency of tracking conflicts in real time.

The core of this sleuthing is geolocation, due to its ease and impact. When a video or image of conflict surfaces, hobbyists scan the footage for landmarks or other clues, trying to pinpoint its location to verify its accuracy or debunk it as a propaganda attempt.

But they have grown more savvy, and the war in Ukraine has shown the breadth of intelligence hobbyists can gather through simple means. Some specialize in flight tracking and are able to show which military aircraft are flying near Ukrainian airspace at any time. Others use NASA's database of fires to track "thermal anomalies" in Ukraine, to help back up claims of new fighting or shelling in a region.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, said the sophistication and savvy of open source hobbyists is "remarkable," and their work to document and verify footage of conflict will help stem Russia's attempt to spread propaganda about the war.

"Facts are hard to come by in conflict," he said in an interview. "It's a tremendous source of information. It's allowing the public and media writ large to have a much deeper view into this conflict."

Eliot Higgins, the founder of investigative journalism media outlet Bellingcat, said he relies on the community's work to document atrocities in Ukraine.

Last week, his organization released a platform to document potential war crimes in real time. Through the work of open source hobbyists and others, Bellingcat has gathered more than 400 verified, geolocated and tagged incidents of potential war crimes in Ukraine, including hospital bombings, neighborhood strikes and other attacks that have killed or injured civilians.

Ukraine, Higgins said, will "be seen as the first conflict where [open source] information was gathered by an online community and turned into useful information that was used for accountability."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted in late February that the OSINT community deserves "much respect" and may not realize how much of its work is "integrated into the broader work of the intelligence community."

But for some, the growth in the number of hobbyists disseminating information in real time about the war in Ukraine comes with concerns. As more people get drawn to the hobby - one without professionally mandated standards - there's concern their actions could put lives in danger or unwittingly spread misinformation.

Justin Peden, a 20-year-old college student in Alabama, who goes by The Intel Crab on Twitter, said the conflict in Ukraine has been a wake-up call. He is an established hobbyist in the open source intelligence community, with close to 240,000 followers on Twitter.

When war in Ukraine started, he was hooked, spending the first days of the conflict verifying hours of videos coming out. In early March, he received an image from someone in Kherson, a port city in southern Ukraine that is now occupied by Russians. The image, taken from a balcony, claimed to show Russian troops moving into the city.

Peden verified the image and posted the exact coordinates of the image on Twitter. But within minutes, he was worried, wondering whether he had just identified a source and put them in harm's way. Peden quickly deleted the post, but not before it had been retweeted around 100 times.

Since then, Peden - whose Twitter profile photo is a crab holding a Ukrainian flag - has started limiting the amount of geolocating he does and thinking deeper about the ethics of the work: What information should be shared? Should hobbyists be held accountable if their findings are wrong? Should they be anonymous?

"Who do you yell at when it's just a photo of a crab online?" he said, referring to his avatar.

Strick, of the Center for Information Resilience, said these are natural growing pains for the community. As the ranks of the hobbyists swell, worrisome behaviors are cropping up, including people sharing conflict footage before precisely verifying it or amplifying images of gore and sexual abuse without questioning the ethics of it.

Going forward, the community should adapt protocols, Strick said, such as those created by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the United Nations that detail how to conduct open source investigations of war ethically.

And for some, such as Bellingcat's Higgins, it marks the start of a new era in war - one where dropping bombs on a city or harming innocent civilians can't easily be hidden.

"There will be many eyeballs watching," he said.

The Washington Post

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