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Open source intelligence methods are being used to investigate war crimes in Ukraine

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

We've heard about so-called open-source intelligence for a few years now. It's where publicly available information - things like satellite imagery, phone videos, social media - can be pieced together to reveal secrets about wars or threats. Now it's being used to track down war crimes and war criminals in Ukraine. It is painstaking work carried out by an army of internet sleuths. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Berlin, where some of them are based.

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DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This is the office of a group that's part of the loose-knit community of open-source investigators. It's called Forensic Architecture - less about architecture, more about forensics, the technique of investigating crimes.

EYAL WEIZMAN: To expose secrecy, not by looking at secret documents but by looking at that which is already public.

AMOS: That's director Eyal Weizman. He got his start by tracking secret U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan. The Syrian conflict expanded the movement. Ukraine has supercharged it because of the quantity of online data, plus new social media platforms and technologies. In Ukraine, battles are documented on TikTok. Atrocities are streamed on Facebook - dead bodies captured in satellite images. The volume of data is staggering, says Weizman, and can clear the fog of war.

WEIZMAN: How one video connects to another video, and how, between two videos, a story start to emerge. Each one is showing not the full story, not the actual proof, but evidence.

AMOS: There's a race to capture that evidence by a volunteer army of activists, journalists and internet nerds to help Ukraine's government analyze the mountain of data, says Bellingcat's Nick Waters, the most well-known group specializing in open-source investigations.

NICK WATERS: The images and videos taken by people on the ground acting as their own witnesses, saying, hey, look what is happening to myself, to my community - that they can be used to actually hold people to account for their actions.

AMOS: One of the first examples - in early April, Ukrainians living in the town of Bucha started posting horrific videos of mass murder after Russian soldiers fled. Moscow denied war crimes allegations, blaming Ukrainian troops for the dead. But satellite images showed a different picture - bodies in the streets when Russia occupied the town. Another new tool - facial recognition apps, like findclone.ru, used to identify alleged Russian perpetrators, explains Waters.

WATERS: OK, say you have a video of Russian soldiers either posted by themselves or by locals or video of them after they've been captured.

AMOS: Since Russian soldiers often post pictures on Russia's Facebook, Findclone often finds a match.

WATERS: Because it's been trained - basically, the image is available on the Russian version of Facebook. So it's very, very good at finding Russian people.

AMOS: And to make it stand up in court, groups are following new rigorous legal protocols developed by UC Berkeley in collaboration with the U.N.'s Human Rights Office. Ukraine was an earlier testing ground for open-source techniques when Bellingcat investigated the downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in 2014. Now Ukraine is a test again for accountability as the war grinds on, says Waters.

WATERS: For me personally, it would be fantastic to get this kind of evidence in court.

AMOS: Maksym Rokmaniko, a Ukrainian in Berlin, has a different aim - a generational shift for young techies.

MAKSYM ROKMANIKO: What is at stake is control of the narrative, is control of the way you can interpret reality.

AMOS: Thirty years old, a former gamer and hacker, he's the director of the Center for Spatial Technologies. He works with a team of young Ukrainian architects. They're building online models of alleged Russian war crime sites to counter Moscow's disinformation campaign.

ROKMANIKO: You don't even have to hide war crimes. You don't even have to work on, you know, like, kind of covering up those traces. They can show it and say that Ukrainians did it.

AMOS: His team is waging war online. He believes the battle for truth is as important as justice.

ROKMANIKO: Easy for us to tell these stories to a western Ukrainian audience. It's more complicated for us to tell them in Russia.

AMOS: For now, he puts the evidence out there and hopes that one day, Russian audiences will see it too.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.