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TOPSHOT - A young woman reacts as she stands with her son in front of a recently inaugurated memorial including 501 plates bearing the names of identified local civilians killed by Russian troops during their occupation of Bucha, north of Kyiv, on 3 July 2023. (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Europol Opens OSINT Taskforce to Help with Russia-Ukraine War Crimes Investigations

Claims of war crimes and other atrocities committed during the Russian war in Ukraine have abounded since the invasion in February 2022, and the use of social media and Internet communication during the conflict resulted in an unprecedented level of open-source intelligence (OSINT) about these alleged crimes. Now, Europol has set up a new operational taskforce to help international crimes units across Europe conduct investigations into core international crimes allegedly committed in Ukraine during the conflict.

The taskforce will help identify suspects and their involvement in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide crimes committed in Ukraine by collecting and analyzing OSINT.

“Due to the enormous amount of information that is available online and the impact of core international crimes on the global community as a whole, international cooperation is invaluable,” according to a Europol press release on the taskforce.

So far, 14 countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Norway, United Kingdom, and the United States) have agreed to participate, assigning a dedicated OSINT capacity to the taskforce to support prioritized requests from Ukraine, other countries, and the International Criminal Court.

Reports of war crimes committed in Ukraine began to emerge shortly after the conflict started. Human Rights Watch reported in April 2022 that it had documented multiple cases of Russian military forces committing laws-of-war violations against civilians in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. These alleged crimes included a case of repeated rape, two cases of summary execution, and other cases of unlawful violence and threats against civilians.

Both parties in the armed conflict in Ukraine are obligated to abide by international humanitarian laws—including the 1949 Geneva Convention—that apply to wartime.

“The laws of war prohibit willful killing, rape and other sexual violence, torture, and inhumane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody,” Human Rights Watch noted. “Pillage and looting are also prohibited. Anyone who orders or deliberately commits such acts, or aids and abets them, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.”

In September 2022, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine concluded that war crimes had been committed during the conflict, including the illegal use of explosive weapons; indiscriminate attacks; violations of personal integrity, including executions, torture, and ill-treatment; and sexual and gender-based violence.

Additional UN investigations found further evidence of “indiscriminate attacks” and war crimes in Ukraine, including rape, torture of prisoners and people suspected ofpassing information to Ukrainian authorities, and the deportation of children to Russia, according to an October 2023 report.

Russia repeatedly denied targeting civilians in attacks and said Ukrainian allegations of war crimes were fabricated, The Guardian reported. Open-source intelligence is helping to refute those claims.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Andriy Kostin, told Time earlier this month that his office is collecting images, video, and other data from Ukrainian civilians documenting alleged war crimes and human rights violations. Kostin’s team is now developing new ways to analyze the evidence to build viable war crimes cases, including using voice recognition and artificial intelligence to analyze evidence.

“For instance, there were civilians who were attacked by Russian forces while trying to evacuate, and survivors went to investigators,” he told Time. “They could identify the specific place where it happened. When the territory was liberated, we were able to find the documents of the [Russian] units, which had birthdays and some other data. Then we used [open-source intelligence] instruments to analyze their social networks with the help of NGOs and civil-society organizations. I have a specific platform in my office, the International Council of Experts, where more than 45 NGOs are helping us on war crimes accountability. So we were able to identify most of them. And when we showed these to the survivors, who had interacted with the Russian [troops], they would confirm it: ‘I saw this face.’”

OSINT is playing a massive role in investigating war crime allegations; soldiers, victims, and bystanders alike have been documenting the war on social media, including in streamed video, satellite images, and TikTok content. Private organizations, including RAND, Bellingcat, and others, have been conducting open-source investigations since mid-2022 into the conflict’s data, and online sleuths leveraged OSINT to get a clearer picture of war crimes committed in Bucha, Ukraine, after Russian soldiers fled. While Russian authorities denied allegations of mass murder, satellite images, social media, and facial recognition tools identified alleged Russian perpetrators, NPR reported.

OSINT analysts can get even more detailed with their findings. According to an LSE Human Rights blog, “Organizations use social media platforms such as Twitter, TikTok, and Telegram to gather critical content, such as videos, photos, and GPS locations. Russian soldiers and military staff tend to publish their photos and locations without realizing that experts can use them to uncover key elements. Thanks to innovative apps such as SunCalc, researchers can ascertain the sun’s movement using interactive maps, sunrise and sunset times, and shadow length, enabling them to track the position of Russian soldiers at a specific time and location, and to discard manipulated narratives often used by Russia. Using cross-platform searches, they can trace and follow up digital footprints of perpetrators and see if they intend to cross borders, which is incredibly useful when using universal justice mechanisms, such as international criminal tribunals and courts.”

The widespread use and dissemination of OSINT findings, however, is not without its critics. According to political science professor and OSINT investigator Miron Lakomy, the availability and access to OSINT have grown so rapidly that the field has rushed past any notable ethical discussions, and the proliferation of wartime videos and OSINT on social media conflates the pursuit of truth with the pursuit of likes.

“First and foremost, as open-source intelligence researchers, we are responsible for what, how, and when we share. We must ensure that we are not being used to make things worse by political actors, which aligns with a core principle of science—primum non nocere—first do no harm,” Lakomy wrote in an opinion piece for Scientific American. “OSINT is not about racing to get content published on Twitter as soon as possible without spending time on its verification and impact assessment. The rush to tweet and making decisive judgments based on the scraps of data from the frontlines without the necessary vetting means that combatants may use investigators as instruments of information warfare. Instead of debunking false claims, there is a growing risk that the OSINT community may mislead the public. It has happened many times before and during the Russian war on Ukraine.”

Lakomy also warned that OSINT researchers often disregard risks to their own well-being, including their mental health. Exposure to gory videos, hate speech, or extremism can result in secondary trauma. “This especially threatens amateur researchers who lack institutional support,” he said.  

For more about OSINT use within private security, including investigations and crisis management, check out these ASIS and Security Management resources: