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Open source intelligence key to fighting Russian disinformation during Ukraine war

Technology has helped Russia spread disinformation during the conflict, but open data can be used to debunk falsehoods.

By Claudia Glover

Open source intelligence can be vital in the fight against disinformation, according to a study released today which assesses the impact of novel and emerging technologies on the spread of false information during the Ukraine war. While open data can be harnessed positively to fight disinformation, those deploying it must also be aware of the risks, security experts say.

Open data has played a key role in fighting disinformation during the war in Ukraine. (Photo by Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP)

The report, entitled ‘The Information Battlefield: Disinformation, declassification and deepfakes‘ was released today to mark the launch of the Centre for Emerging Technology and Security (CfETS), a new research centre at the Alan Turing Institute for artificial intelligence which aims to boost the UK’s security by giving policy makers better information about emerging technologies.

CfETS will aim to take an ‘innovative approach’ in a bid to help ‘maintain the UK as a leading voice in international security’. 

“The launch of this centre comes at a crucial time – technology is advancing at an increasingly rapid rate and emerging technologies present both opportunities and threats to UK national security,” said Sir Adrian Smith, director of The Alan Turing Institute. “Our centre will bring together defence and security expertise from around the world to ensure that policymakers have access to the highest quality analysis and research. It will provide us with new opportunities to keep the UK safe.”

Open source intelligence and the war in Ukraine

The inaugural report from CfETS looks at the role of disinformation used by Russia during the war in Ukraine, and how emerging technologies have helped and hindered its spread. Russia has used well-established tactics to try and influence both Russian and Ukrainian citizens, spreading disinformation through social media using misleading posts and videos.

Open source intelligence (OSINT), publicly available data which can be analysed by professionals and citizens alike, has played a significant role in countering these false statements. “Data about this conflict have been more accessible to western audiences than ever before,” explain the authors. “Commercial satellite imagery showed Russia’s military build up around Ukraine’s borders in the weeks preceding the invasion.” 

They cite the example of Nasa’s Fire Information for Resource Management System, which uses satellite imagery to detect active fires. It showed in near real-time the location of heat spots indicative of Russian attacks, at a time when the Russian government was denying the war and blaming attacks on Ukrainian terrorist groups. 

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“I think open source intelligence is one of the biggest thorns in the Russian side,” says Alexi Drew, senior analyst in defence, security and infrastructure at thinktank RAND Europe. “Particularly in the way that we’ve adapted to debunking and pre-emptively engaging with some of the false narratives that Russia has tried to set loose on the international stage.”

This effort has been encouraged by Western intelligence agencies declassifying and releasing sensitive material into the public domain, the report says. “By outlining Russia’s plans for invasion and revealing Russia’s attempts at falsifying a pretext for action, these declassifications have helped to counter Russia’s disinformation among Western audiences,” it says. 

The risk of open source intelligence

This level of accessibility can also make data vulnerable. “I think a risk we have is people trying to do the right thing in analysing the data that they have accessed but not actually having the expertise to be certain in what it is they’re finding,” says Drew. This can lead to additional misinformation being spread inadvertently. Publicly available data could also be influenced by government-funded think tanks, notes a report by the Royal United Services Institute.

Despite these risks, however, increased use of OSINT is having a positive effect on the entire security industry, argues Drew. “It’s interesting to see non-open source groups, such as the security services in the UK, doing their briefings via Twitter,” she says, adding that this is a significant shift in strategic communications. “Actually being open about what information we have, rather than holding on to it, is a way to defend the information ecosystem, push back [against disinformation] and immunise it against being undermined,” she says.

Read more: Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine have made little impact

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