Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: Why Tapping Into Open Source Intelligence Still Comes at a Cost for Researchers in the Global South

Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: Why Tapping Into Open Source Intelligence Still Comes at a Cost for Researchers in the Global South

[Eman El-Sherbiny is a freelance digital investigator who has worked on Ukraine, Sudan, Chad and the rest of the MENA region as well as East Africa. In the past, she has led investigations at Sudanese Archive and conducted investigations for the Centre for Information Resilience on Russian aggression in Ukraine.]

Open source intelligence, often referred to as OSINT, has been an exponentially growing discipline employed by multiple industries garnering just over $5 billion in market share in 2021. The nascent industry boom is slated to reach $35 billion in 2030, drawing from incessant demand for geospatial analysis, threat and risk assessment, video and social media analytics amongst a number of techniques deployed by the security apparatuses and wider OSINT community. The open source aspect of OSINT makes it relatively attainable with a good internet connection and a PC, a means that is necessary but is still considered a luxury to many in the Global South. 

Multiple market research papers concluded that North America, followed by Europe, are at the helm of a burgeoning and scaling industry, however a number of challenges puts a few countries from the Global South at the tail end of a thriving trend. That is not to say researchers from the Global South do not play parts in identifying disinformation and glaring human rights violations across the globe, though the trajectory moves at a much slower pace as misleading information claims authority in countries like China, North Korea, and parts of the MENA region and the African continent.

Limitations to OSINT in the Global South extend beyond the disinformation spheres and the systems in place to keep it a matter of fact. Challenges to researchers and the quality of OSINT used are still vast, and this paper delves into four aspects of the discipline where researchers face hindrances that impact the overall quality of an already substantial body of work. These hindrances are discussed below, drawing from the author’s own observations as an investigator and case studies.

Satellite Imagery

This section explores a number of challenges that arise when satellite imagery is used to identify security movements, scales of destruction in conflict zones, human rights abuses, and a lot more. The quality and availability of high-resolution satellite images have consistently advanced identifying threats and deaths in real time. Equally, there is a myriad of satellite service providers that make the open source side of affairs more accessible to all. Working on countries in the Global South is still of impact and weight and has been widely shared, praised and acknowledged in awards ceremonies. In some cases, open source high-res imagery can be scanty and not up to date and while it counts as a challenge, it has driven researchers working on the Global South to delve into other open source unearthing techniques to draw out visuals that support their research. Though this does not count as a limitation, it still takes away from the time and effort put towards geospatial analysis and other daunting tasks. The means to debunk disinformation remains costly and out of reach for many researchers in the Global South, who might not have the resources to obtain immediate high-res satellite imagery, which at times can be of great significance to verifying whether information is true or not. 

Street Map View is another revolutionary function that has aided in swift calls for accountability. Drawing from my own experience of working mostly on the Global South, identifying abuses, documenting and verifying unspeakable atrocities and infrastructure damage was largely aided in most cases by the availability of street view or 3D view via Google Maps, Yandex, or OpenStreetMap to name a few. Using Street View for countries such as Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, for example, has proven challenging due to the lack of 3D views of streets and buildings. In places like Darfur, where researchers, along with available satellite imagery, largely depend on other open source data, namely, user-generated footage, open source verification techniques hit practical cul-de-sacs, largely due to the lack of technology, particularly smart phones connected to the internet. There have been cases where phones used to document attacks on areas or refugee camps are sought out and destroyed by alleged paramilitaries in Darfur, according to witness statements, making it unsafe to store data on phones unless they are immediately deployed to a different server, a demanding yet yielding process.

Social Media

Building on the last point from the previous category, social media is of great value due to the lack of high-res imagery or footage in some cases. Footage unrelated to incidents at hand can provide a panoramic look on smaller towns and cities. For countries where security forces display insignia and uniforms, other forms of visual content make up for the lack of centralised or decentralised sources and/or encyclopedias, especially when there are a few insurgent and paramilitary groups that we as researchers know of. 

Yet, using social media for OSINT can also pose a danger to investigators. Due to the advancement of cyber surveillance and state-sponsored attacks on journalists and NGO workers, the gravity of being penalised makes anonymity a necessary precaution and not a choice. Security of human rights researchers and advocates are often unnamed as the crackdown in multiple places in the global South have proven fatal in the past and continues to rise. And, while Article 79 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions protects the media and those reporting on violence, guarantees to protect researchers and media professionals fall short.

Security of open source researchers in the Global South continues to be in peril as social media platforms move towards new business models that take away free tools to scrape and analyse digital content in all formats, such as the move Twitter is taking towards monetising the use of Twitter APIs. Ensuring a researcher’s anonymity especially in countries where press freedom is severely lacking should be prioritised and not compromised.

There is also the issue of social media platforms removing content that could be used for open source investigations. In the cases of Sudan, Chad, Djibouti and Ethiopia between 2019 – 2022, some of the videos ideally used to verify violence against protests were taken down from platforms like Facebook. Some of the videos taken off the platform were not of a graphic nature nor did they breach standard community guidelines, making the case for archiving footage for future use and probing.

Education and Training

Akin to the importance of having access to a computer and the web, gaining the skills to conduct open source intelligence reports are paramount to build a strong investigative or risk analysis report. Open source intelligence lives up to its name through the ubiquity and relative attainment of necessary skills to conduct rigorous analysis. While there is training addressing that gap, developing advanced skills and machine learning capabilities for some still come at a cost of time and money not attainable to most of the researchers.

The Berkeley Protocol and the pioneering Human Rights Centre (HRC) of UC Berkeley have provided a solid framework towards accountability in the legal realm; a move that has been adopted by researchers in the Global South. The Berkeley HRC has been fostering relations with civil society organisations and universities across the globe to advance the use of its protocol to aid with watchdog journalism. 

However, a similar framework could be designed to the tunes and differences of the Global South, namely the lack of accountability, the heavy hand of law while educating researchers on how to stay safe in the digital realm and beyond. Grassroot movements working on documenting human rights violations ought to be protected and enriched to develop an integral education programme that serves these communities and the smaller pockets.

Recognition and Vicarious Trauma

Most researchers I spoke to in the Global South found it daunting to work while keeping invisible. While the results are often empowering, the lack of recognition does play a role in disarming some researchers of hope as their work gets cited but not attributed. Vicarious trauma, which is connected to work identifying human rights abuses in the Global South, has led some researchers to despair. Mental health advocacy from media organisations have increased over the years, however keeping a hygienic mental state is an arduous task, that in some cases, cannot be aided by only webinars. Trauma can also emanate from the practices performed by police states and security bodies in the Global South to repress any form of resistance, making the researcher’s job doubly difficult.

The Global South has taken vast strides towards accountability, and though it comes at a price, open source intelligence is one of the disciplines we need to tap into for a more transparent and conducive environment. That environment ought to prioritise researchers’ work and their wellbeing while scaling their OSINT skillset and recognising the occupational hazards all researchers face under authoritarian regimes. Anonymity in the digital sphere should not be a hurdle in the course for documenting abuses anywhere in the world.

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