Welcome to war in the age of big data.
Readily available satellite images, alongside TikTok videos, Twitter and other social media platforms have taken much of the element of surprise out of warfare and preparations for war. Look no further than the tensions surrounding Ukraine as the world worries over the potential for a Russian invasion.
Russia’s buildup of around 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders was highly visible via satellite images. And videos and photos were widely disseminated, providing plenty of what’s known as open-source intelligence to experts and amateurs alike.
Signs of a buildup began last spring, triggering concern, but alarm bells began to ring around December “when we started seeing things that were a little unusual” relative to earlier activity, said Lukas Andriukaitis, a Brussels-based associate director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab operated by the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based foreign-policy think tank.
It was clear that more equipment and personnel were moving into position, with the buildup of troops and equipment in neighboring Belarus, in particular, raising concern, Andriukaitis said in a phone interview.
Andriukaitis said it also pays to know where to look for other types of publicly available information. Though they were shut down as the buildup gathered steam, it was possible earlier to access public railway databases in Russia. Images of train cars with identification numbers could be cross-checked with the database to determine where they came from and what units or equipment they carried.
Open-source intelligence, often abbreviated as OSINT, isn’t brand new. Bellingcat, which describes itself as an independent, international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists using open-source and social media intelligence to probe a variety of subjects, has won accolades for its work tracking covert operations by Russia and other subjects since 2014.
The continued growth of social media, available satellite imagery and data sets in general have transformed the field and altered the calculus around war and diplomacy.
Contrast Russia’s buildup around Ukraine to the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S. and its allies employed a “left hook,” a massive flanking attack against Iraqi forces near Kuwait’s western border.
“The Iraqis had no idea it was coming because they didn’t have satellite images; so they didn’t see that equipment out in the desert,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.
While deception and misdirection remain part of any military playbook, as evidenced by the confusion around Russia’s troop movements this week, operational deception on the scale of that used in 1991 could be impossible to replicate today, according to security experts.
It also means the public, which previously had to rely on government leaks and news reports, can see what’s happening for themselves, in nearly real time.
Meanwhile, the availability of images via social media and the tools to verify them represent the other major change, Lewis said. Geolocation and metadata can be checked to confirm if images are what they’re purported to be.
Social media also provides a platform for open-source intel operators to share their work with the public.
A spotlight was on open-source intel Wednesday as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia was continuing its military buildup, in contrast with Russia’s claims that troops and units were returning to bases after participating in military exercises.
“We have been very transparent. And the intelligence we are sharing is actually confirmed also with open sources, with the satellite imagery from commercial satellites,” Stoltenberg said at a Wednesday news conference.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News Wednesday there were “no meaningful signs” of a Russian pullback and that the U.S. saw Russian forces “that would be in the vanguard of any renewed aggression against Ukraine continuing to be at the border, to mass at the border.”
Cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks and government websites Tuesday also kept tensions elevated.
“There are some potential signs of troop movement from the forward operating bases on the Ukrainian border, but we can’t say for sure that these movements are actually happening and in which direction,” Andriukaitis said via email.
Images and analysis tweeted out by widely followed open-source analysts sought to make sense of the latest developments. Confusion over what is happening on the ground also illustrated the challenge presented by possible efforts to misdirect observers:
The threat of a major European ground war has periodically rattled financial markets. Stocks tumbled and oil futures soared on Friday, prompting investors to snap up traditional safe-haven assets, including Treasurys, after the U.S. warned an invasion could occur “any day now.”
Read: What a Russian invasion of Ukraine would mean for markets as Biden warns Putin of ‘severe costs’
Markets steadied Tuesday, with equities rebounding sharply, after Russia said it was withdrawing troops, but investors aren’t sounding the all-clear. The Dow Jones Industrial Average
ended 54.57 points lower, down 0.2%, on Wednesday, while the S&P 500
eked out a 0.1% gain. Oil futures
rose 1.7%, with analysts looking for crude to surge above $100 a barrel in the event of a Russian attack.
See: Stock-market drops ahead of wars tend to resemble ‘growth scares’
So what does it mean when the whole world can watch as a country prepares for a potential, large-scale invasion? The Russians have attempted to misdirect observers over tactical details, but the task of building up and positioning more than 100,000 troops and the necessary equipment and supply lines makes it all but impossible to disguise the scope of what’s taking place, analysts said.
And in the case of Ukraine, it appears Moscow wanted the world to know about its preparations as it also denied plans to invade. Indeed, the question may be whether Moscow is attempting to use the visibility of its movements to its advantage.
“You have the opportunity to signal things because you know you will be seen,” Lewis said.
All governments, including the U.S. and its allies, make decisions knowing that many of their actions will be visible. The fact that military movements on the scale of what’s been taking place around Ukraine are costly and difficult mean that they also send a clear signal about determination and intent, Lewis said, which may be the part of the calculus when it comes to attempting to build leverage for negotiations.
Russia is “using it to their advantage, rattling their sabers as loud as possible” to provide themselves with better bargaining chips, Andriukaitis said, adding that there is little downside to the approach, because if Moscow proceeds with an invasion, such surveillance “isn’t going to affect their operations at the strategic level at all.”
The time required to geolocate and verify videos, for example, means there will be a delay, which would prevent open-source intel from being able to “get ahead” of the action or make tactical predictions, he said.
Meanwhile, the field, much like the world of big data, is constantly evolving, with data sources falling in and out of favor. Andriukaitis, a former officer in Lithuania’s military, said that he enjoys the freedom to “think outside the box” offered by open-source intel work.
In the world of open-source intelligence, “everything is on the table,” he said.