Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: OSINT in Transition

Symposium on Fairness, Equality, and Diversity in Open Source Investigations: OSINT in Transition

[Billie Burton is the Executive Director of the Ukraine Digital Verification Lab at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and is a Co-Director of the Cameroon Database of Atrocities held at the University of Toronto. She is also a US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation Scholar.]

[June Bove is a Wargaming Specialist with Harvard University’s Negotiation Task Force and an Investigator with the Ukraine Digital Verification Lab at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.]

[Billie and June are both members of the transgender community that are undergoing gender-affirming treatment alongside their studies as graduate students at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.]

To be transgender is often to be between and to be othered, fitting imperfectly on the fringes of professional life. Whilst transgender OSINT practitioners live and thrive in these marginal spaces of society, they also grapple with a razor-sharp, double-edged sword. Just as the internet and social media are the umbilical cords of OSINT, facilitating human rights investigations worldwide, so too are they the umbilical cords of the transgender community, providing the space, connection, and safety necessary for survival. Through (often painful) lived experience, trans people skillfully and sometimes necessarily live distinctly different digital and physical lives, particularly early in the transition process. By crafting hidden, carefully constructed digital sanctuaries away from the challenging physical, personal, and political realities of a transgender existence, the trans community can find refuge and create joyous spaces far from the prying eyes of mainstream society. The OSINT community functions similarly as an ocean of discord notifications, nondescript avatars, and comedic or random usernames, creating a space in which it is easy to submerge into anonymity. OSINT practitioners and transgender people ultimately share the same digital kelp forest in that ocean, providing refuge, anonymity, and a modicum of safety from potential threats. It is as much a home for the transgender, for the other, the in-between, and the queer, as it is for an OSINT practitioner. They are fundamentally similar, and it is a space in which the transgender body can develop in peace, with love and support, despite the intense threats that transgender people experience. The shared, deliberately careful culture and traditions of obscurity and security combine to create spaces that are meaningfully accessible for trans people in ways that are often missing elsewhere in international law, international relations, and the wider professional world. 

Transgender individuals face myriad obstacles barring the way to traditional intelligence work, and are known to face similar challenges in the legal field. State intelligence agencies are representatives of relative state power structures, and are thus typically inhospitable to modes of being that depart from the state-sanctioned “norm”. Transphobia permeates the security clearance process in the US, despite attempts to mollify the issue. Additionally, intelligence and law enforcement are historically complicit in the oppression of queer and gender non-conforming individuals, and the military itself has proven to be no haven after former President Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. As such, intelligence work within an established structure is an alienating option for many trans people. Open-source work proves attractive to the trans community because it sidesteps many traditional barriers to participation. Open-source intelligence is an inherently democratic and diverse field of professionals, hobbyists, academics, and other specialists. Most open-source collection tools only require a mid-to-high range computer capable of running Microsoft windows. The trans community is no stranger to online self-education, and OSINT work proves welcoming to those suffering from social dysphoria. Although economic barriers (such as equipment cost) remain a problem for many trans people across backgrounds, OSINT work is far more accessible than a traditional academic or professional training path. With a low barrier of entry and the meaningful nature of many OSINT initiatives, it is well-placed as career in which transgender people can thrive. 

OSINT work is a vital part of trans resistance. The successes of the American anti-fascist and pro-democracy movements were and are dependent upon strong volunteer intelligence work. Doxing local extremists, protecting local protests, and developing a security culture require threat assessments and analysis enabled by informal, volunteer collections. Independent trans activists like Erin Reed contribute vital mapping of anti-trans legislation, and real-time threat updates for families living under transphobic state governments. Alejandra Caraballo, esq. provides timely legal analysis of transphobic legislation and transphobic agitation, amplifying a problem that has been characterized as genocidal. Both women engage in informal OSINT work, regardless of their self-identification with the label. They, and innumerable community volunteers, contribute a tangible resource to trans individuals and families. Several state-level pieces of transphobic legislation have died in committee after activists like Ms. Reed marshalled volunteers to give informed, reasoned testimony against the bills. This work is indispensable and would not traditionally be possible in an ecosystem in which state agencies are the primary intelligence actors. Community and non-profit open-source research also contribute to the debunking of societal myths and misunderstandings about trans people. Medical-sounding misinformation is one of the most commonly employed anti-trans narrative strategies, and is easily pre-empted by the availability of trusted educational resources. Open-source medical information and public surveys of the trans community are the backbone of these resources. 

Returning to the concept of the razor-sharp, double-edged sword, it is essential to understand the political context of the transgender community in the US and UK in particular. The trans community faces an unprecedented, widespread, and systematic surge of anti-trans legislation in many US states that threaten or challenge trans existence and experience. The use of the ‘transgender issue’ or ‘transgender debate’ as a hot button topic in both the US and UK has led to a serious increase in anti-trans hate crimes, violence, and online vitriol. It is not unreasonable to suggest that given how widespread these concerning trends are, the transgender community is in a uniquely vulnerable period. It is critical that the greater challenges faced by transgender people of color are also noted here. 

In that context, the transgender community is directly threatened not necessarily by the OSINT community, but by the very same democratized nature that makes OSINT an enticing opportunity for trans individuals in the first place. The democratic nature of OSINT work means it is equally accessible to actors responsible for the maintenance or acceleration of trans repression. The alt-right was an early example of the antagonistic use of politically motivated amateur intelligence. In 2017, right-wing and fascist trolls from 4chan’s /pol board utilized flight tracking information, amateur live streams, and open source information to steal actor Shia Labeouf’s “he will not divide us” protest flag. Labeouf had put up the flag in an act of defiance against the Trump administration, a political favorite of 4chan’s /pol board. The /pol board is especially notorious for its racist, misogynistic, trans- and queerphobic, and eugenicist tendencies. Unfortunately, extremist worldviews like these tend to motivate high levels of self-identification and devotion. These feelings can empower amateur radicals to commit to patience and diligent research so long as there is the chance it will contribute to a propaganda victory. OSINT provides high strategic utility for a low investment in materiel and is thus seen by far-right actors as a force multiplier against asymmetric or ideologically opposed foes. It is disturbing to consider quite how serious the consequences of malign actors using OSINT to target the trans community could be. It would require only basic OSINT and geospatial research to identify members of the community and community spaces using social media for targeting. If organized systematically, it provides a rapid, robust mechanism by which the trans community can be targeted for widespread harassment of violence. This pathway to violence should not be taken lightly, and it applies to many other vulnerable populations too. 

Additionally, amateur or sloppy OSINT work by trans-allied actors may also contribute to trans repression via the accidental spread of created narratives, or by the weaponization of existing open-source trans resources, such as Erin Reed’s map of informed consent medical facilities for hormone treatment. It is worth noting that whilst vicarious trauma is a well-known phenomenon within the OSINT field, the essential connection to social media may place transgender OSINT practitioners at higher risk of this or other forms of trauma given the intensity of anti-trans vitriol, and as with many high-profile transgender individuals, it is likely that prominent OSINT practitioners will receive substantial amounts of transphobic abuse. 

This article has clearly outlined the challenging duality of OSINT for transgender individuals and the wider trans community. It offers opportunities ideally suited to the unique characteristics of online life and experience for many transgender individuals, and it therefore offers a space in which transgender people can thrive in a way that does not necessarily force them into the ‘marginal spaces’ highlighted in the introduction. OSINT clearly also offers an important path for trans resistance and advocacy. Yet the double-edged sword that presents real complexity – both moral and personal – for trans OSINT practitioners. Working in a space and with methods that can easily harm the community of your personal community is uncomfortable, disorienting, and potentially distressing, and it places an even greater value on security, anonymity, and the ‘do no harm’ approach espoused by some OSINT organizations and enshrined as a principle in the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations. In this moment of heightened vulnerability for the trans community, it is an ideal opportunity to provide training and resources to support and recruit transgender OSINT practitioners, whilst also refining methodologies and outputs to ensure that even the most conscientious of investigations do not inadvertently cause significant harm to transgender people. 

As trans people occupying the OSINT and security spheres, it is incumbent on us as authors to adhere to our own morals, rather than merely giving them written character. This is a time in which self-defense and community defense are a singular issue for the trans community, irrespective of how difficult that is to accept. As trans people, the stakes for us are concerningly high. The safety, security, and survival of the transgender community is legitimately under threat. If political actors on the level of an organized troll forum can make use of these simple tools, we have no option but to out-perform them. To lose that fight is to risk losing legal bodily autonomy, or much worse. It is also a deeply personal fear that pervades our personal and professional lives. When members of our community discuss concepts and concerns of ‘trans elimination’ and ‘trans genocide’, we do not laugh it off – we intimately understand what that means, and why it is being felt so widely by the trans community. As representatives of the trans community in our field, we inherently bear a burden of first impressions for the many individuals whose personal or professional lives have yet to bring them into contact with the trans community. Our struggles are not representative of all trans people, yet we feel a need to stress that there is real worth in careful, conscientious OSINT work by members of the trans community. Given the political context, we also understand that there is real worth in careful, conscientious OSINT work for the trans community. 

Ultimately, in arguing that both the transgender community and the OSINT community are protected by a ‘digital kelp forest’ that provides similar protection and anonymity, we forget the key difference – that when the transgender community is exposed today and in the future, it can expose us, our safe spaces, and our families to real-world political harassment and violence. The transgender community is deeply vulnerable to these threats. 

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