Social Media Data Used to Identify Russian Incursions into Ukraine


Researchers have used pictures and videos posted online along with satellite imagery to track the movement of Russian troops and equipment into Ukraine, according to a report by the Atlantic Council, a D.C. based think tank.

“The point is that we tap into people’s desire to share data online,” said Maks Czuperski, one of the authors of the May 28 report, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine.”

Most devices used for posting to the Internet embed geotags in the data, which are geographic location identifiers, Czuperski said. These geotags become an important part of locating military movements.

“They create little digital breadcrumbs all across the Internet,” Czuperski said.

Researchers could verify the images location with other pictures found online of the same location using the geotag with tools such as Google Earth and Yandex Maps, Czuperski said. Using the landscape and landmarks found in other pictures, they were able to identify to a high degree of certainty the location of images they collected, Czuperski said.

All images would be archived after they were collected, Czuperski said. If equipment or weapon systems first seen in Russia appear to pop up in Ukraine, they can go back and verify using images in the databank, he said.

In July 2014, someone drove past a military convoy in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, and took a video of  the vehicles heading west, according to the report. Within the convoy was a 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled 152 mm Howitzer system. An Al-Jazeera news crew filmed the same Msta-S system two months later in Novoazovsk, Ukraine. The team of researchers was able to identify the same hand painted cargo marking, a paint blotch on the turret, and camouflage pattern on the vehicle in both videos, according to the report. 

“These features strongly suggest… that the unit would have been transferred across the border,” the report said.

Researchers were also able to identify when Ukraine was being shelled from positions within Russia by analyzing artillery craters, said Czuperski. The trajectory of an impact can be determined by using high-resolution satellite images to examine the distinctive features of a crater, which can signify whether it was a low or high angle strike, Czuperski said.

Once established, researchers would follow the trajectory back until they found the area they believed to be the firing position for the artillery strikes, said Czuperski. The positions were usually identified by the telltale burn marks on the surrounding ground, he said.

News outlets often reported when a given location would come under fire, Czuperski said. Using that information you can determine roughly when there would have been a ground missile system at the supposed firing position, he added.

The next step involved searching through social media posts from nearby communities during that time frame, to see if there were posts or pictures related to military equipment being fired, he said.

“It takes layers of verification,” Czuperski said.

Once there are several data overlaps related to a specific event, it can be asserted with confidence that the firing position of a specific artillery strike has been identified, he said.

Topics: Cyber, International

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