Under the guidance of Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, the CNS team was among the first to discover that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun, and White’s instincts told her that TikTok could offer a trove of additional information. Turns out she was right.
This is a remarkable time to be working in the open source intelligence field. Can you tell us what your work as a graduate research assistant entails?
When I’m not in class, I spend my days in the graduate research assistant office of CNS with the rest of my team. Recently, we have been locating key nuclear weapons-related facilities in North Korea (DPRK) and building a database of the people, equipment, and purposes of these locations. At the same time, we are always keeping up with the news and relevant events that occur in North Korea and other parts of the world relating to weapons of mass destruction. Most of our projects are collaborative, so we very much have a divide and conquer mentality when it comes to bigger assignments. Typically, we start with the same question: what are we looking at and what is its purpose? As we piece together that puzzle, we are then able to move into our more niche skill sets which, for me, include photo interpretation and geolocation. The really cool, albeit scary, part about working on North Korean issues is that every time we learn more about a site, we can see how it fits into the bigger picture of what they choose to share with the world, such as military parades and missile tests. When we look at newly released media from the DPRK, there is usually someone in the office who says, “Oh look, we know that guy!” or “We’ve seen that room before!” and it gives us a whole new perspective.
Some people might be surprised that TikTok is becoming an important tool for open source intelligence work. Can you tell us how you’ve been integrating that platform into your work at CNS?
TikTok is trickier than a lot of the other social media apps simply because the search function is really different; all you can really do is scroll. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so many people knew that an invasion was imminent—we didn’t know exactly when it was going to happen, but people were predicting it because in Russia and along the border of Ukraine people were seeing buildups of Russian military units along the road. They were seeing tanks, infantry fighting vehicles—all of this equipment and encampments all along the roads leading into Ukraine. People were posting pictures online, and at that time, because the war was not certain, it didn’t seem like there would be political repercussions for people posting pictures. So, we started looking at satellite imagery along the border near where these pictures and videos were taken. One of our images showed a military unit right outside of Belgorod. I started searching Belgorod in the Russian alphabet on TikTok and seeing what videos came up. So that’s how we found a video that confirmed the location of this military unit that we had identified earlier. We continued to keep track of that location and that’s where we saw the traffic buildup headed towards the border, most likely caused by Russian checkpoints. I searched hashtags for words (like “tank”) and locations in Russian and Ukrainian languages. I had to spend a lot of time on TikTok and watch some devastating videos to try and see what I could pull and what would be helpful to our part of this project, which was geolocating and identifying where troops were moving.
What attracted you to this field?
I was working at the Federation of American Scientists in D.C., where they also do open source work. My mentor really pushed me into the field and taught me a lot. I was attracted to the Middlebury program because of the wonderful people they have working with OSINT. So, it was kind of on my radar, but I didn’t think I’d be very good at it when I was learning some of the hard skills like using Photoshop and GIS; but there’s another part, which is looking on social media and on the regular Internet, which I think I’m pretty good at. We all bring something different—other team members can do the coding and GIS, but I’m really good at social media!
How will this research experience advance your professional goals?
Part of the reason I chose the Middlebury Institute is because of the flexibility in what I could do with my degree, as evidenced by the incredible network of alumni and professors reaching across the globe. Even if I don’t stay in the nonproliferation field, I know that my OSINT experience can translate into many other careers. Every decision I have made in my career thus far has been driven by my commitment to public advocacy. I hope to use my OSINT skills to continue providing evidence-based facts and information to the public to help them make informed policy decisions. Perhaps with a published investigative article or two!
Any advice you would offer to future Institute students?
I came from a very large public university and was anxious about finding opportunities on a small campus. What I didn’t consider prior to attending is that because of Middlebury’s size and student-to-professor ratio, there are more individualized opportunities available. Professors are graciously willing to help their students; I have not once entered a classroom where a professor did not speak about research and employment opportunities. With anything, what you put in is what you get out. Especially in the security field, you have to learn how to advocate for yourself. If you aren’t meeting with professors outside of class, signing up for mentorship programs, or working on your research portfolio, you won’t tap into everything MIIS has to offer.
Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies professor Dr. Jeffrey Lewis and a team of students noticed the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Google Maps hours before it was officially announced, the Washington Post reports.
The Economist recently explored how open-source intelligence (OSINT) can challenge governments’ monopolies on information, with insight from Middlebury Institute professor Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The article is behind a paywall but you can watch a video interview we conducted with Jeffrey Lewis on OSINT.