Hours before Vladimir Putin announced the start of “special military operations” on the morning of Feb. 24, Moscow time, a small team of researchers based in Monterey, California, knew that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had begun.
Watching the traffic layer on Google Maps for the main road from Belgorod, Russia, to Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, analysts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies saw a “traffic jam” appear at 3:15 a.m., local time. It was right at the spot where a graduate student, Steven De La Fuente, had earlier seen the buildup of armored personnel carriers, mobile missile launchers, and other military vehicles on high-resolution images from a commercial satellite that can pierce clouds and fog using radar. He had been scouring imagery for the region after TikTok videos posted by Russian civilians appeared to show hardware including Buk surface-to-air missile launchers.
The only reasonable explanation for the signal on Google Maps was that the Russian armor was now on the road, blocking progress for the few civilians traveling at night and whose smartphones were sending location data to Google’s servers.
“Someone’s on the move,” tweeted Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert who heads the Middlebury team.
The Middlebury researchers’ success in documenting Russia’s military buildup and detecting the start of the invasion shows how open-source intelligence, or OSINT, has changed the geopolitical and military environment. No longer do governments have exclusive access to the technology that puts eyes on the battlefield. That means they no longer control the narrative in the way they once did.
“Secrecy is harder. Clandestine operations are harder. Certain kinds of deception are more difficult."
“Secrecy is harder. Clandestine operations are harder. Certain kinds of deception are more difficult and the possibilities for press and public accountability are increased,” Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a longtime critic of government secrecy, told BuzzFeed News.
This meant, for example, that reporters and the public did not have to rely solely on the statements of US government officials to understand that Russia’s claim in mid-February that it was withdrawing some troops near the Ukrainian border was false. OSINT analysts could clearly see from satellite images that the buildup continued. “Putin lost significant credibility because his government’s statements were inconsistent with the objective reality,” Aftergood said.
Countering propaganda is welcome, but some OSINT analysts also wonder about the ethical implications of their work. Melissa Hanham, an OSINT specialist affiliated with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, told BuzzFeed News that she believes that practitioners need to wrestle with some difficult questions: “Are OSINT analysis now actors in an active conflict? Can OSINT analysts change conflicts?”
The technological landscape for OSINT has changed a lot since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed separatists in the Donbas region, starting a conflict in eastern Ukraine that has since claimed some 14,000 lives. Back then, high-resolution commercial satellite imagery was still in its infancy and public-domain analyses of the situation in Crimea viewed from space could take weeks to unfold.
Today, analysts like Lewis at Middlebury are tweeting their findings on the timescale of rolling news. Meanwhile, the satellite companies Maxar Technologies and Planet have provided media outlets with near real-time images of the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, the subsequent invasion, and the damage caused by Russian strikes.
On Feb. 28, Maxar made headlines across the globe when it released images of a Russian military vehicle convoy, stretched out over the road to Kyiv for 40 miles, within hours of their collection. According to information provided to the BBC’s security correspondent from McKenzie Intelligence Services, a company in London that analyzes satellite and aerial imagery, the convoy’s slow progress suggested it was being hampered by breakdowns and logjams.
The technology used by De La Fuente to document the vehicles that later moved toward Kharkiv from Russia is a recent game changer. Synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) can construct detailed images from the signals that bounce back to a satellite emitting a beam of radio waves as it moves overhead.
Radar images are harder to analyze. “You have to develop an eye to understand what’s going on,” De La Fuente told BuzzFeed News. But crucially, radio waves don’t depend on natural light and pass through cloud cover or smoke — allowing analysts to peer through the fog of war, day and night. The Middlebury team used 0.5-meter resolution images generated by Capella Space, a startup in San Francisco that launched the first of its growing constellation of SAR satellites in August 2020.
Satellite imagery isn’t the only OSINT tool to have developed rapidly since Russia seized Crimea in 2014. While commercial websites like Flightradar24 and FlightAware have allowed enthusiasts to track aircraft in flight for years, they filter out planes whose operators have requested that they not be tracked, limiting the potential for OSINT. But there are other sites entirely crowdsourced by enthusiasts with radio antennas that are uncensored. The largest, ADS-B Exchange, started operating in 2016.
BuzzFeed News has previously used data from Flightradar24 and ADS-B Exchange to track surveillance aircraft operated by the military, its contractors, and law enforcement. And today there’s a small army of OSINT enthusiasts who log the activity of military and other interesting planes and post their findings to social media. In the hours leading up to the Russian invasion, those aircraft included a US Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone, which was visible on Flightradar24 in Ukrainian airspace, apparently watching the Donbas region.
Military aircraft can turn off their transponders, so if they show up on flight tracking sites, it’s because they are making no effort to remain hidden. But where sites like ADS-B Exchange may come into their own is in helping the public hold to account the politicians who have pledged tough sanctions against Putin’s close associates, including asset seizures.
“You can see where the oligarchs are flying their private jets,” Dan Streufert, the flight-tracking enthusiast who founded ADS-B Exchange, told BuzzFeed News. The same goes for luxury yachts, similarly visible because of signals from onboard transceivers that can be tracked on sites like MarineTraffic and VesselFinder.
The explosion of OSINT means that governments can be called out if they release information that can quickly be shown to be false. In the most striking example, the Biden administration in early February announced that its intelligence indicated that Moscow was planning a fake attack that would be blamed on Ukraine, providing a pretext for war.
On Feb. 22, separatists in the Donbas region claimed that three people had been killed in an IED explosion that had destroyed a car and a van. One of the main separatist militia groups posted images of the aftermath on its Telegram channel. News reports quickly followed in the Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta and RT, blaming the attack on Ukraine.
The claims fell apart, however, when the investigative journalism group Bellingcat, which specializes in OSINT, showed the images to an explosives specialist who said the damage shown was not consistent with a blast from an IED. What’s more, charred human remains seemed to be cadavers planted at the scene, with one image showing a cut to the skull, apparently made by a bone saw. “It’s a typical cut made to remove the skullcap as performed during an autopsy,” one forensic pathologist told GRID News.
Now, with the war underway, social media is being swamped by images and videos showing the movement of Russian armor, verbal confrontations between Ukrainian citizens and Russian soldiers, and the impact of missile strikes on residential areas, government buildings, and other infrastructure. “Individual people with cellphones are becoming like sensors,” Hanham said.
“Nowadays, if you do anything significant and you move through population centers with military equipment, everyone has cellphones, and everyone has access to the internet and social media,” Rob Lee, a graduate student researching Russian defense policy at King’s College London’s War Studies Department, told BuzzFeed News in early February.
At that time, comments posted on TikTok from Russia were already revealing future troop movements. “They’re saying, ‘My boyfriend or husband is going to be gone six to nine months.’ They said they were going to Belarus for exercises,” Lee said.
Over the past few days, Ukrainian news broadcasters have urged their viewers to post information on the movement of Russian troops while avoiding images of Ukrainian troop movements or refugees trying to escape the fighting.
The goal, according to Jane Lytvynenko, a Ukrainian-born research fellow in the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and formerly a BuzzFeed News reporter, is to create an “uneven OSINT environment” that will help the defense of Ukraine.
But for some OSINT specialists, analyzing information released selectively to tip the scales of a conflict raises some difficult questions. It’s especially fraught when the intelligence involves videos taken from people from their apartments, which could be easily geolocated and potentially targeted for reprisals. “Now we are moving into an era of ‘Should I do this, could I do more harm than good?’” Hanham said.
Companies providing satellite imagery could also change the dynamics of a war by selectively releasing information that gives a propaganda or military advantage to one side. BuzzFeed News asked Planet, Maxar Technologies, and Capella Space, which each have contracts with the US defense sector as well as operating in the civilian one, to comment on how they consider what information to release, given the possibility that this might cause combatants to be targeted for missile strikes and bombings. Maxar did not immediately respond. Planet referred BuzzFeed News to a statement expressing concern for Ukraine.
“We provide transparency, which is what the world needs at a time like this," Capella said by email. “Our public catalog is available to customers and other approved entities to see what data is available.”
What is clear is that OSINT is now part of the fabric of war. “This data is out there. It’s on the internet,” De La Fuente said. “It’s not going to go away.”
Updated to include comment from Capella Space.