Chris Stokel-Walker at Wired: “The video shows a faint glow in the distance, zig-zagging like a piece of paper caught in an underdraft, slowly meandering towards the horizon. Then there’s a bright flash and the trees in the foreground are thrown into shadow as Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 hits the ground early on the morning of January 8, killing all 176 people on board.
At first, it seemed like an accident – engine failure was fingered as the cause – until the first video showing the plane seemingly on fire as it weaved to the ground surfaced. United States officials started to investigate, and a more complicated picture emerged. It appeared that the plane had been hit by a missile, corroborated by a second video that appears to show the moment the missile ploughs into the Boeing 737-800. While military and intelligence officials at governments around the world were conducting their inquiries in secret, a team of investigators were using open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques to piece together the puzzle of flight PS752.
It’s not unusual nowadays for OSINT to lead the way in decoding key news events. When Sergei Skripal was poisoned, Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence website, tracked and identified his killers as they traipsed across London and Salisbury. They delved into military records to blow the cover of agents sent to kill. And in the days after the Ukraine Airlines plane crashed into the ground outside Tehran, Bellingcat and The New York Times have blown a hole in the supposition that the downing of the aircraft was an engine failure. The pressure – and the weight of public evidence – compelled Iranian officials to admit overnight on January 10 that the country had shot down the plane “in error”.
So how do they do it? “You can think of OSINT as a puzzle. To get the complete picture, you need to find the missing pieces and put everything together,” says Loránd Bodó, an OSINT analyst at Tech versus Terrorism, a campaign group. The team at Bellingcat and other open-source investigators pore over publicly available material. Thanks to our propensity to reach for our cameraphones at the sight of any newsworthy incident, video and photos are often available, posted to social media in the immediate aftermath of events. (The person who shot and uploaded the second video in this incident, of the missile appearing to hit the Boeing plane was a perfect example: they grabbed their phone after they heard “some sort of shot fired”.) “Open source investigations essentially involve the collection, preservation, verification, and analysis of evidence that is available in the public domain to build a picture of what happened,” says Yvonne McDermott Rees, a lecturer at Swansea University….(More)”.