(KYIV, Ukraine) — TikTok isn’t just for dance memes — it’s now being used by amateur investigators to track Russian military buildups along Ukraine’s borders.
Among those researchers is the Conflict Intelligence Team, or CIT, a tight-knit team of investigators based between Russia and Ukraine.
CIT practices open source intelligence, a method of collecting and analyzing information that, as the name suggests, relies on publicly available data such as social media posts and satellite imagery. .
“It’s basically a group of freelance bloggers preying on avid seekers of military equipment,” said Kirill Mikhailov, one of the group’s few core members. Mikhailov, 33, is from Russia but currently lives in Kyiv, Ukraine.
The group formed in 2014, he said, at the start of fighting in eastern Ukraine between that country’s military and pro-Russian separatists. Mikhailov said that the band’s audience is mainly “people in Russia who need to be educated on this topic”, but that the band’s work is also translated into English for Western audiences.
CIT research has been widely cited in recent months, including in a Jan. 15 analysis of Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine by two experts from the nonprofit CNA, a think tank that advises the military. American.
The group’s work has also appeared in recent publications from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Thomas Bullock, an analyst with private intelligence firm Jane’s, named CIT one of the top teams currently tracking Russia’s military buildup.
Data collection amid Russian-Ukrainian tensions
The Biden administration has warned that Russia could fabricate a pretext to invade Ukraine, a charge Russia denies. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has played down the likelihood of a Russian invasion.
Amid this tension, which spans the globe, Mikhailov explained how CIT collects some of its data.
“Ideally, every train in Russia is registered in a central database,” Mikhailov said.
A train’s departure is checked against social media images – some TikTok hashtags in Russian are full of videos of trains carrying multiple rocket launcher systems, troop carriers and tanks – which researchers visually associate with stations on along train routes.
The type of gear on a train, Mikhailov said, can in some cases be tailored to specific military formations. The CIT and other researchers have spotted in videos on social media equipment allegedly used by units of the Parachute Division of the Russian 76th Air Guard, for example, because of the specific vehicles used, their paint jobs distinctive or unit markings.
This type of information can be cross-referenced with the known home base of a military unit.
Researchers also supplement their findings with satellite data or, in some cases, social media comments.
“If a TikTok goes viral – like, super viral – then we may be lucky,” Mikhailov said, as the videos drew comments from soldiers’ relatives.
Those comments may contain nuggets of useful information, Mikhailov said, such as suggestions that a loved one’s military deployment will take longer than routine exercises publicly announced by the Russian military.
“There is no hiding place” in today’s global military landscape, according to Robert Abrams, ABC News contributor and former commander of US forces in Korea.
Open source intelligence is more ubiquitous than ever now; everyone has a cell phone and satellite images are cheaper to get.
“From a military perspective, you really have to think about how you’re going to protect your position and your movements and what your capabilities are,” Abrams said. “You no longer have to worry about airplanes flying with side or front infrared radar, now you have to worry about Joe Schmoe around the corner with a cell phone.”
Verification of the information collected
When the US military makes decisions based on publicly available information — the kind used by CIT — that data is cross-checked with other forms of intelligence, like human sources or intercepted communications, Abrams said.
“You don’t make decisions and assessments on one intelligence report or source. Typically, you want to cross-reference another form of intelligence,” Abrams said.
To avoid misinformation, Mikhailov said CIT researchers aimed to collect social media posts from real eyewitnesses.
Satellite imagery also helps verify data collected by CIT, Mikhailov said.
But a method used by the CIT to validate its findings has recently become trickier, after, Mikhailov said, an intervention by Russian authorities.
The eight-digit numbers on the side of a car can help CIT isolate a specific train and get a history of its movements. That data is now harder to come by, Mikhailov said.
“They blocked our accounts, they restricted certain specific types of requests, like you can ask to see all the trains that are currently in a station. It’s not available at the moment,” Mikhailov said.
The most significant recent change, Mikhailov said, was the removal of data on the routes of trains carrying military cargo.
This wasn’t the first time a new roadblock had been erected for open source researchers. In 2019, Russian lawmakers approved a bill banning troops from using smartphones while on duty and posting personal information online.
Mikhailov said researchers are adjusting to the latest setbacks.
“We found workarounds and loopholes that they haven’t closed yet,” he said.
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