Intelligence: Hidden In Plain Sight


May 9, 2022: The Ukrainian military has been successful at documenting and reporting on Russian military activities. Most of these reports prove to be accurate but occasionally the Ukrainians get it wrong. One recent example was reporting that recent photos obtained via commercial satellite providers were the result of Google revealing military subjects clearly, without hiding such images with a blur. Google reminded the Ukrainians that they had never used the blur, despite demands from several nations that Google do so. This misunderstanding may have arisen from the fact that some nations do insist that local commercial satellite photo providers employ the blur.

In 2018 it was noted that the Russian firm Yandex, which has been providing mapping services via the Internet since 2004, has been, for their satellite photos, blurring military and other sensitive sites in Turkey and Israel. This was odd because there are several major Internet firms (like Google) that have provided similar satellite image services longer than Yandex that have learned that blurring sensitive sites (at the request of the nation involved) does not work and only brings attention to a sensitive (usually military) site that can be seen minus the blur on other commercial satellite image services. Most major nations have learned that the best you can do is keep a list of all commercial satellite firms and request that some sensitive sites only be made available at lower resolution. With the lower resolution users would have more difficulty finding these sensitive sites unless they searched large areas at a lower resolution, a process that takes a lot more time. Another, more effective solution is for the owning nation to simply put very sensitive sites underground, undercover (as in some shipyard facilities) or carefully camouflage them and check the effectiveness of your concealment efforts with your own photo satellites. Israel is known to use this method in some cases. But most major nations use these methods and still find the “lower resolution” approach works for bases and other military facilities in combat zones. Even that does not help much now because Islamic terrorists have been using quadcopters equipped with high-resolution vidcams to get the latest details of combat zone bases.

Meanwhile, there are still some nations that make the mistake of asking Google to help conceal something. There was an example in 2016 when Taiwan has asked Google to hide some new construction on Itu Aba Island. That activity was not much of a news item even though it was clearly visible on Google Earth. Taiwan was soon reminded that making that request has quite an opposite effect. Countries can request that Google not show classified military facilities but in making that request they point out where the classified operation is.

So far, a lot of this stuff is just there for anyone to find. And Internet users find it. This is called "crowdsourcing", where large numbers of people accomplish impressive feats of research or analysis because they can quickly mobilize and get to the task via the Internet. The U.S. military will not say that they appreciate the work done via crowdsourcing, but individual analysts and intelligence officials have made it known, unofficially, that crowdsourcing is another useful tool that unexpectedly came their way via the Internet. For Taiwan requesting that Google blur out or “erase” their new concrete structures (apparently for mounting air defense systems) simply provided more publicity for the construction effort that was completed by late 2015.

Meanwhile, many nations simply build new military facilities in remote areas and remain quiet about it. The government and military intel community have the money and software chops to screen and analyze huge quantities of data on the Internet (both text and pictures) but it can take a while to find new military facilities in remote areas. Despite all these resources, the intel behemoths continue to get overtaken by civilian amateurs. A large factor in this was the appearance of Google Earth and other commercial satellite photo sources. This revolutionized military intelligence and the way news on military affairs is developed and spread. Case in point was the details on the transformation of the Chinese armed forces, their activities in the South China Sea and usually unpublicized details of what North Korean, Iranian and other secretive military organizations are up to. China and North Korea have long been very secretive about military affairs. But the appearance of Google Earth (originally as Earth View) in 2005 changed everything. By putting so much satellite photography at the disposal of so many people, in such an easy-to-use fashion, unexpected discoveries were made.

People soon discovered that if they had a high-speed Internet connection, they could use Google Earth to find satellite photos of all sorts of interesting stuff. This was especially true of the "Forbidden Kingdoms" (China, Russia, North Korea, and a few others). While the CIA and the military have had access to satellite photos of these countries since the 1960s, little of it was shown to the public. Now that so many people can examine these lower resolution, civilian satellite images that many have gone over vast stretches of the Forbidden Kingdoms and found things that were newsworthy and never reported before. Things like new military bases, test sites for new weapons, and the new weapons themselves. The open discussion of these findings, most of them already known to the large national intel agencies, brought forth insights and analysis that was often superior to what the much smaller number of professional analysts were capable of. Another example of “the wisdom of the crowd.”

Meanwhile, new problems have appeared because of how the Internet collects and makes available data with unforeseen military uses. This became news in mid-2018 when the U.S. Department of Defense banned all personnel in “operational areas” (usually overseas combat zones) from using commercial devices with GPS geolocation capability. This included cell phones and PSMs (Physiological Status Monitors) like Fitbit. What triggered this was the discovery that a social network for athletes called Strava had developed software that enabled anyone to track users wearing a Fitbit or other GPS enabled PSMs. Dedicated (often professional) athletes joined Strava to exchange PSM information and that led to Strava developing features that enabled user locations worldwide. Turns out that intelligence agencies had discovered Strava as well and reported that they could not only detect PSM users anywhere in the world but could often identify these users by name. Not surprisingly many intelligence and military personnel used their Fitbits while overseas, often while on secret missions. From January to July 2018 the extent and implications of this became quite clear. The intel agencies quickly (and quietly) ordered their personnel overseas (and often at home as well) to stop using PSMs that made their data accessible to public networks, even ones that were not open to the public. These could be hacked. Now there is a market for “secure (encrypted) PSMs for military and intelligence personnel. Actually, work on that sort of thing has already been underway for some time as a project for monitoring the health of troops in real time.

Then there is pattern analysis. You can track all manner of activity on the Internet and the intel agencies are often not the first to discover how to find and analyze this data to reveal secret operations. Instead, the intel agencies still depend on, whether they like it or not, the wisdom of the crowd to let them know. What the experts don’t know the crows may discover first.




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