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Open-source intelligence is piercing the fog of war in Ukraine (The Economist)

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Jan 13th 2023

Social-media posts and satellite imagery provide a torrent of data, but can overwhelm and confuse

On may 29th 1982 Robert Fox had just witnessed 36 hours of intense warfare over Goose Green, a remote spot on the Falkland Islands, an archipelago in the South Atlantic then being fought over by Britain and Argentina. It was the decisive battle of the war and it had gone Britain’s way. Mr Fox, then a bbc radio correspondent, was keen to tell listeners. It took him ten hours to get to a satellite phone aboard a warship, he recalls. It took another eight hours to decrypt his text in London. The story was not broadcast for 24 hours. Television journalists had it worse, says Mr Fox. Their shots took ten days to reach home.

When the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson was liberated in November, it took just hours, if not minutes, for the news to flood out. Images circulating on Telegram, a messaging service popular in Russia and Ukraine, showed Ukrainian soldiers strolling into the centre of the city and Ukrainian flags lofted over buildings (see clips above). A network of amateur analysts on Twitter tracked the Ukrainian advance, almost in real time, by “geo-locating” the images—comparing trees, buildings and other features to satellite imagery on Google Maps and similar services.
The rise of open-source intelligenceosint to insiders, has transformed the way that people receive news. In the run-up to war, commercial satellite imagery and video footage of Russian convoys on TikTok, a social-media site, allowed journalists and researchers to corroborate Western claims that Russia was preparing an invasion. osint even predicted its onset. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute in California used Google Maps’ road-traffic reports to identify a tell-tale jam on the Russian side of the border at 3:15am on February 24th. “Someone’s on the move”, he tweeted. Less than three hours later Vladimir Putin launched his war.
Satellite imagery still plays a role in tracking the war. During the Kherson offensive, synthetic-aperture radar (sar) satellites, which can see at night and through clouds, showed Russia building pontoon bridges over the Dnieper river before its retreat from Kherson, boats appearing and disappearing as troops escaped east and, later, Russia’s army building new defensive positions along the m14 highway on the river’s left bank. And when Ukrainian drones struck two air bases deep inside Russia on December 5th, high-resolution satellite images showed the extent of the damage.



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Hello from London. 

When I think back to the start of last year, the burning question then concerned Vladimir Putin. Would he really be so foolish—and aggressive—as to invade Ukraine? Many doubted it, up to the moment when Russian troops poured over the border. But a flood of detailed warnings from Western intelligence agencies, made available for all to see, turned out to be accurate.

We are now in a period of OSINT, or open-source intelligence. (Our article on this, nearly a year ago, referred to Russia’s pre-war manoeuvres serving as a coming-out party for OSINT.) We’ve grown used to seeing footage from battles, sometimes shot by drones, as well as geotagged images filmed by soldiers themselves and then uploaded to social media. Add in satellite and other images, also shared online, and an interested amateur today may have the sort of timely and detailed information from the war that the best equipped generals, spies and political leaders could not have dreamt possible even a few years ago.

What to make of the era of OSINT? Read (and watch) our new report on the topic, and a couple of lessons emerge. The new information does remove some murk and uncertainty from the battlefield. Unwittingly, soldiers with mobile phones and an internet connection have repeatedly helped their enemies to target them more effectively. Yet the fog of war has a way of settling again. One point I’ll take from the past 12 months: so much information gushes from the war zone, alongside carefully crafted propaganda from all sides, that OSINT may deflect and deceive as well as reveal.

The fighting in Ukraine goes on. After weeks of tough fighting it appears that Russian forces managed to take a small eastern town, Soledar, that might be relevant for supplies to a nearby front. Western allies should send more heavy military equipment to support Ukraine. Britain has just said it will send Challenger tanks. Amid expectations that Russia may launch another round of conscription, other countries (notably Germany) will be pressed to send heavy tanks of their own.

Do anniversaries matter? Only as excuses to write stories we’d planned in any case. So indulge us with one: Disney marks its hundredth birthday this year and appears to be in rude health. As we will set out in an article soon, it’s done remarkably well for so long by adapting to evolving media tech—from cinema to video to streaming. We’ll explain what lies behind that success (it’s more than Mickey and Marvel), and unpack reasons why Disney may struggle much harder to flourish in the coming few years.
Elsewhere, my colleagues in the United States have been considering the incomes of Americans, and asking how sluggish gains in the median income might explain worsening political tensions. Read the article we’ve just published on this.

Back in Britain, the woes of the National Health Service are always with us. We wrote recently about the plight of doctors there. But is Britain alone in its suffering? The health services of many rich countries are under strain, and not only (perhaps not mostly) for a lack of money. Have a read of our new analysis of the common challenges that many countries face.

Last, if you’re looking for lighter relief, let me point you to a pair of pieces. One is our brief, and sharp, review of Prince Harry’s memoir. I (genuinely) laughed aloud while reading it. The prince didn’t write his book, at least not alone. So let me also recommend our profile of his ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer, who has written a few memoirs on behalf of celebrities–they seem to share a theme.

Thanks again for your thoughts about the rest of the year. Sally Ann Moore calls for companies (and others) to do more to boost gender equality, suggesting that 2023 should be the year when companies appoint more women to their boards, and the gender pay gap should decline. David Peduto in Colorado, USA, points out that Turkey also marks its hundredth birthday later this year, after national elections in the summer. He expects Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be set on extending his already long rule. Finally, Steve Thair argues that climate-change denialism is in effect dead because the average person “has seen enough weird weather in 2022” to realise that something serious is afoot. I hope you are right, Steve. Given the storms in California, and a strangely warm winter in Europe, it seems this year is already confirming the trend.

Please write to me at, or follow me on Twitter at @ARobertsjourno.

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