Thousands of amateur detectives are sharing their findings on war crimes and troop movements from the comfort of their living room. They hope their work can one day be used in court. Could this come true?
Justin Peden waves into the phone camera. He’s sitting in his dorm room in Birmingham, Alabama, and still looks a bit baffled. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken up his life, too. He is now someone journalists want to talk to. The day before our interview, he was contacted by a Japanese broadcaster; they’re sending a camera crew over soon to shoot a documentary about him.
No ordinary ‘college kid’
“It’s surreal, I’m just a regular college kid from Alabama!” Peden keeps repeating. But alongside hanging out with his fraternity brothers and worrying about upcoming exams, the 20-year-old is also one of the most prominent Twitter detectives.
Peden has never been to Eastern Europe, but that hasn’t dampened his interest in the region. Since he was 13 years old, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, he has been fascinated by the Ukraine conflict. He spends much of his free time virtually flying over the disputed territories in eastern Ukraine, “in his little Twitter plane,” as he says. “If I ever went to a Jeopardy! game that was exclusively Ukrainian geography, I think I’d do pretty darn well!” he says, chuckling.
Freely accessible sources
Peden, who goes by “Intel Crab” on Twitter, scours the internet for satellite images, flight trajectories and TikTok videos. He then shares his findings with his 255,000 followers, posting analyses of troop movements or the exact coordinates of a missile attack.
Kyle Glen also has two lives. During the day, the Welshman works in the field of medical research. In the evening, he also conducts “open source intelligence,” OSINT for short. “Open source” because the sources the Twitter sleuths work with are all publicly accessible.
The core piece of this detective work is geolocation, because it’s so simple and effective. Whenever they get a hold of a video or image of a conflict, OSINT hobbyists comb through the material for landmarks and particularities with which to determine the exact location of the shown event. This allows them to verify the accuracy of the material or to debunk false reports.
Back in 2014, the OSINT network Bellingcat used only freely accessible sources such as satellite and cellphone images to prove that the passenger plane MH17 was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft unit.
You’re going to hear a lot about the #Azovstal steel plant in the coming hours…
The large complex of furnaces and rolling mills has become the ‘final stand’ for Ukrainian forces fighting in #Mariupol. Facility is also rumored to have countless underground tunnels. pic.twitter.com/JOiOqbKlFO
— Justin Peden ??? (@IntelCrab) April 17, 2022