“What actually happened? The use and misuse of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)”, Digital Methods Winter School and Data Sprint 2023

Applications are now open for the Digital Methods Winter School and Data Sprint 2023 which is on the theme of “What actually happened? The use and misuse of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)”.

This will take place on 9-13th January 2023 at the University of Amsterdam. Applications are accepted until 1st December 2022.

More details and registration links are available here and an excerpt on this year’s theme and the format is copied below:

The Digital Methods Initiative (DMI), Amsterdam, is holding its annual Winter School on the ‘Use and Misuse of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)’. The format is that of a (social media and web) data sprint, with tutorials as well as hands-on work for telling stories with data. There is also a programme of keynote speakers. It is intended for advanced Master’s students, PhD candidates and motivated scholars who would like to work on (and complete) a digital methods project in an intensive workshop setting. For a preview of what the event is like, you can view short video clips from previous editions of the School.

What actually happened? The use and misuse of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

From geolocating burning tanks in the Ukrainian fields and determining the authenticity of videos depicting possible human rights violations in Cameroon to reconstructing the events of January 6, 2021 in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., activists, journalists, and the general public are increasingly turning to a (somewhat) new ally: Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). The systematization of information gathered from open, often internet-based, sources (as opposed to the classified sources of governmental intelligence) using digital tools, as OSINT may be defined, is turning into a highly regarded strategy to build public narratives of truth.

Recently, major news outlets such as The Guardian, The New York Times, and the BBC have added OSINT units called ‘visual investigation’ teams. They join more established investigation units from international civil society such as those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, academic research institutions such as Berkley’s Human Rights Investigations Lab, and citizen intelligence agencies like Bellingcat. Recent news articles have described the rise of open source intelligence as challenging existing authorities, especially state-controlled or other official information sources.

In doing so, OSINT practitioners have developed a particular set of reporting formats and verification tools that strengthen the epistemic authority of their practices. For example, crowd-sourced information from Twitter or Telegram is arranged next to video stills pulled from popular platforms or satellite images from public providers in order to put together and strengthen the argument of what actually happened.

OSINT has developed a signature ‘investigative aesthetic’ and style, dramatised and popularised by organisations striving for justice, such as Forensic Architecture, or preserving the memory of wars, such as the Syrian Archive. OSINT also taps into the transparency strategies of the open source ethos and the encouragement of DIY hacker culture. Professional and lay OSINT practitioners curate lists of tools, draft how-to guides and share training materials on YouTube and elsewhere to empower others to undertake similar work. These have been applied to projects that fight climate change and trace illicit money flowing through obscure corporate structures. They also have found an eager audience in those who dig for and post updates about conspiracy theories such as QAnon. Whether it is misuse or weaponisation, OSINT practices and styles have also been adopted by misinformation operatives such as ‘War on Fakes’.

The Winter School takes up OSINT as an investigative practice and aesthetic. It offers critical research projects on data journalism, fact-checking and other investigative projects employing online data. It also combines OSINT tools with digital methods and other online research techniques for academic research that make use of verification. Finally, it analyses its cultures of practice and how it establishes and undermines others’ epistemic authority.

Organisers: Kamila Koronska, Richard Rogers and Guillen Torres, Media Studies, University of Amsterdam. Application information at https://www.digitalmethods.net.