Data collection in the form of crowdsourcing and open-source intelligence (OSINT) is actively reshaping our understanding of the root causes, and consequences of armed conflicts and military doctrines following those conflicts. To better understand the relevance of data crowdsourcing and the role OSINT plays in armed conflicts, we must first differentiate between conventional and unconventional warfare.
Defining Conventional vs. Unconventional Warfare
The Modern War Institute defines conventional warfare as a state-on-state conflict between organized, uniformed, professional military forces using mass firepower in open space away from civilians to destroy each other to gain and hold ground. The United States and the United Kingdom are the closest countries to follow conventional warfare. Although both countries have a history of utilizing unconventional styles of warfare and military formations, recent policies such as the 2018 US NDS and the UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy illustrate both countries’ strategic approaches focus more on conventional procedures than unconventional ones. The US joint doctrine defines unconventional warfare as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. Hezbollah is a nonstate example that demonstrates unconventional tactics. Their organizational design and long history of terrorist and guerilla warfare showcase the continued employment of unconventional methods rather than conventional ones.
Crowdsourcing in the Modern World
In today’s world, everyone owns a smartphone. The average individual spends 3 hours and 15 minutes each day on their phone, and the younger population within their early 20s are double that each day. This leaves an exuberant amount of data to be collected. In a conventional war setting, crowdsourcing can provide an ample amount of intelligence to anyone and everyone. In the wake of the Russo-Ukraine war, crowdsourcing has provided the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense with actionable insights into Russian troop positions. Through the use of an app titled E-enemy, the Ukrainians have successfully implemented a nationwide digital evidence collection app. Think of the app as a government-run social media page (like Snapchat) where someone posts a video, picture or text of Russian movement, positions, capabilities, etc. You name it, it’s on this app. Ukrainian fighters have utilized E-enemy to severely hinder Russian supply lines by ambushing convoys and logistic depots. To combat this, Russia has tried to spread disinformation through the territories that they control, but their assault on eastern Ukraine has been severely halted. Reports of abandoned military vehicles and horrible logistics conducted by the Russian military are indications that the Ukrainian army’s hits on enemy supply lines are crippling the Russian advance. In a war where the pentagon predicted Kyiv to fall within 48 hrs, we still see the Ukrainians battling the Russians five months later. That said, it is important to understand the bigger picture in the Russo-Ukraine conflict. The west continues to spend billions on the defense of Ukraine, and that alone is a huge factor in why the Russians have been halted. Although crowdsourcing has led to successful guerilla tactics against Russian supply lines, only time will tell if crowdsourcing will truly affect the Russians enough to shift their tactics.
Throughout our history, there have been many other instances of utilizing crowdsourcing during an armed conflict. The conflict in Syria has seen the use of crowdsourcing on a smaller scale, however, the results have been varied compared to Ukraine. The technique was conducted by U.S. analysts who were tasked with sifting through old satellite images of Syria and tagging the ones that looked like trouble. Due to the continuance of the Syrian conflict, the micro-crowdsource has not made a huge impact on the war in a conventional manner.
Bringing it Back to Praescient’s Work
The importance of crowdsourcing and data collection can also be seen in the U.S. Army’s 1st IO, the only active component information operations, or InfoOps, organization, and one that Praescient supports with expertise and manpower. 1st IO’s mission is to provide information and cyberspace operations support to the army and other military forces by way of deployable teams, specialized training, and analysis. The 1st IO was established so that information operations could be more centralized. The U.S. military realized that intelligence operations like crowdsourcing are an important aspect of modern armed conflicts, meaning that intelligence operations are essential in conducting conventional warfare. Future InfoOps strategies may take into consideration how best to leverage crowdsourced information.
Praescient interns and associates learn details about Praescient’s past work monitoring the Syrian Cessation of Hostilities in Aleppo for the NGA. The Praescient team effectively geolocated footage combined with in-country incident data and social/local print media sources. Praescient had analysts from different backgrounds contributing to the same effort, showcasing a smaller scale of crowdsourcing. Praescient’s internship involves components exploring the inner workings of the CI community and the implications and importance of information in an armed conflict.
Changing the Playing Field
Crowdsourcing is being seen more and more in conflicts around the world. Intelligence operations have never proved more vital in conventional warfare as governments and legitimate institutions have adopted and implemented them. In Ukraine, crowdsourcing has allowed a smaller, less equipped military to slow down a much larger one through attacks on logistical convoys. The establishment of 1st IO by the U.S. military showcases the severity that intel ops have in conventional warfare, shedding light on its impact on modern military tactics. The role of uncovering critical information within conflict is no longer solely up to intelligence analysts. Conventional and unconventional warfare can be improved through data collection and crowdsourcing from public citizens, and it will only continue to have a greater impact as warfare continues to evolve.