Together with thousands of OSINT enthusiasts, my interview guest David examines publicly available information from crisis areas. He is part of an OSINT community called Project Owl. The interview first appeared in my German newsletter. On friendly request I publish it also in English.
More than 5,000 research enthusiasts are online at any one time, and more than 28,000 have registered. „Project Owl“ is a community for people who like to collect and evaluate publicly available information, or OSINT for short. OSINT stands for Open Source Intelligence, a common term for online research, especially in English. The community is active on Discord. This is a team software that can be roughly compared to Slack or Microsoft Teams.
David is a moderator in this community, and he also publishes results of his own OSINT research as part of the AuroraIntel collective. Here he explains how the community works and what journalists can learn from it.
David, how did you become an OSINT expert?
I wouldn’t call myself an expert. Every day is a school day. It started with me asking myself: Can I verify video clips in the news myself? I discovered the hashtag #OSINT on Twitter and then the OSINT community Project Owl. Since then, I’ve been doing research with people. When you understand that information is freely available, you get hooked. It’s intriguing.
How does it look like when you are researching together in the community?
We do it as a hobby and enjoy it as a community thing. Everyone has their own little area of expertise, everyone has their niche. Some research drug cartels in Mexico, others the war in Ukraine. Some are very good at geolocation, airlines or weapons. I know one person who can tell you in the blink of an eye which weapon you see in a photo – they all look the same to me. My area of interest is the Middle East and satellite imagery. When the news talks about an air strike, I look at the satellite images. Do the images match what was reported? What was destroyed? Sometimes nothing happens for days. Then there is a news event and I spend the whole night on OSINT. But it is a never ending work and these nights are just piece to the puzzle.
Can you show me an example of your research?
Yes. On 11 June 2021, the Washington Post reported on the destruction of Gaza during the 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel. The data came from an analysis of satellite imagery by the „U.N. Institute for Training and Research.“ There was no doubt that there had been heavy air strikes. I used satellite imagery to create a map of the documented air strikes. In the process, I realised that the UN Institute must have been mistaken in one case. The Washington Post reported air strikes in fields. I compared the pictures of the alleged craters with older pictures from different years. In doing so, I realised that they were not craters, but hay bales. This is a very political issue. Otherwise, one could have thought that Israel bombed fields so that people would have nothing to eat.
Your thread on the subject got some attention with 45 retweets, but not a lot.
I already feel humbled when I only get one retweet. I don’t do it for the retweets, I do it because I enjoy it and I like finding out details. I never thought I would collaborate with so many incredible people.
You asked me not to use your full name. Why?
One advantage of being anonymous is that you don’t get pidgeoned as a propagandist for one side or the other. The second advantage is that people I love don’t get involved in things just because someone doesn’t like what I post. I live in the UK and pursue a profession that has nothing to do with OSINT.
In what way is Project Owl political?
We are not political. A lot of our members are from North America and Western countries, but we also have moderators and members from all over the world, Iran, Israel, China, Ukraine, Russia. OSINT is not about getting your opinion across, it’s about getting the truth across. Research doesn’t always go the way you want it to with your rose-tinted glasses. When I publish an investigation, I face the questions. You don’t reply „because I said so“, but provide evidence.
What does the Ukraine war mean for the OSINT community?
We see an influx of new people interested in OSINT. The war is happening on the doorstep of the West. Many who didn’t care much about OSINT before now have a personal interest.
Are beginners at all welcome in the OSINT community?
Absolutely! The community is a good environment for new people. There are tutorials to read and learn. People come, watch, help out. Over time, skills develop.
It’s hard to look at pictures from the war. How do you protect yourself mentally while researching?
You’re the first journalist who’s ever asked me that. Let me be honest. You see some horrible things. You need to know when to step away from the computer. You need time off. That balance is important. There are troll accounts that post horrible things. They target you mentally. They want to disturb and stop you. If you deal with bad things a lot, you can distract yourself with other topics. For example, I love talking about Formula 1 and photography. At Project Owl we also have separate channels for interests and hobbies.
The research of the OSINT community can be very relevant for journalists. How do I know which accounts I can trust?
That takes time. There is no real quick way. You can follow accounts and learn over time how they handle the news. Once you have a pool of accounts that you think are trustworthy sources, it’s quicker.
When OSINT people discover clever things in pictures, I often see featureless landscapes. Somehow I can’t really get my head around it. I’m certainly not alone in this. Do you have any tips?
I think it’s important to have an open mind. You’re not looking for anything in particular. It’s not about a before and after comparison where one thing catches your eye. You can’t understand a situation from two pictures. You look at a lot of shots over a long period of time to understand how things develop. Then you can evaluate. And I can’t stress enough that OSINT is a community thing. Nobody knows everything. It will always help you to work with others. That’s what Project Owl is all about.
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