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This week in open-source intelligence (OSINT) news: Withering landscape in Gaza tells a story of a human crisis, mounting threats of Chinese attacks during a U.S. election year and how Google is trying to protect you from phishing attacks.

This is the OSINT news of the week: 

Gaza’s trees tell a story of destruction and desperation 

Israel’s continued offensive has caused great suffering to the people in Gaza. It has killed and displaced thousands of civilians, polluted the soil, water and air, and now, research shows, is causing the destruction of trees, compounding a humanitarian crisis, which the UN has recently characterized as “imminent famine”. Investigative reporters at Bellingcat analyzed satellite imagery from Gaza to show clear signs of mass removal of trees, which has intensified during the colder winter months.
Bellingcat’s research shows that the destruction of trees in Gaza is not merely an example of environmental damage during conflict. The disappearing trees tell the story of destruction and desperation. On the one hand, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) appear to be targeting orchards and farmlands for military purposes – a clear violation of wartime laws that prohibit attacks on the vegetation and landscapes that people need to survive. And the other cause of deforestation is the Palestinian civilian victims themselves, who have no access to food or fuel and are resorting to cutting down trees to build makeshift shelters and even eating leaves to stave off hunger.

“The law or the laws of war are clear. Warring parties are strictly prohibited from attacking objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and objects. … It means food, it means medical supplies, it means drinking water installations. And it means agricultural areas, which have been very widely destroyed by the Israeli army.”

Ahmed Benchemsi, the Communications Director for the Middle East and North Africa Region at Human Rights Watch

Threats of Chinese attacks and disinformation take center stage during an election year

The intelligence community leadership is warning the Senate Intelligence Committee about the looming threats of Chinese cyber attacks, laying the foundation for the productive dialog between America’s top spies and their congressional supporters. Joseph Gedeon, a national security reporter at POLITICO, reports that despite the Kremlin’s historical dominance of the election security landscape, this year all eyes will be on any new intelligence about China, which now include its powerhouse capabilities in leveraging AI for disinformation campaigns. Other potential adversaries, including Iran and North Korea, were also mentioned in the report, especially given this year's tumultuous global events.

Gedeon cites the results of recent surveys showing that both Democrat and Republican voters are also worried about AI’s potential to wreak havoc on 2024 races. Members of both parties are equally concerned that AI could impact the upcoming election through disinformation, and that their personal data will be vulnerable if a campaign got hacked.

“It’s now an effort to influence our policy, to divide us year round, on a regular basis. The Chinese want to get into this business. The Iranians and others will join them … It’s a growing risk.”

Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in an interview with Face the Nation.

Google tackles security issues by introducing new protection features for Chrome

Google wants its Chrome users to be less vulnerable to phishing attacks. Forbes reports that Google’s latest security update claims to be 25% more efficient in detecting and blocking phishing attempts by the browser. According to Google’s report, an average malicious site used by cybercriminals to steal personal data only exists for less than 10 minutes. Until now, Google has been checking the sites their users visit against a locally stored database of malicious sites. This listing process was updated every 30 to 60 minutes, which means that three malicious sites could have come and gone before Google, and the user, even knew about it. The new upgrade to the Safe Browsing feature introduces real-time protections, hoping to close the window of opportunity for the hackers.

In another security upgrade for iOS Chrome app users, Google has announced an update to the Password Checkup feature. Google could already flag passwords that are known to have been compromised and appear in dark web databases, but now it has added two more functions – an alert for weak passwords and another for reused ones.

“To keep up with the increasing pace of hackers, we’re bringing real-time, privacy-preserving URL protection to Google Safe Browsing for anyone using Chrome on desktop or iOS. Plus, we’re introducing new password protections on Chrome for iOS as another way to help you safely navigate the web.”

Jonathan Li, Product Manager, Safe Browsing, Google and Jasika Bawa, Product Manager, Chrome, Google

ODNI releases new OSINT strategy

Intelligence agencies are trying to get a better handle on collecting and processing open-source data. In a new strategy released earlier this month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the CIA, are highlighting the importance of developing new ways to collect, create and deliver open-source intelligence. The way intelligence agencies handle OSINT has recently come under fire, as critics have pressured them into disclosing how the surge of commercially available information is impacting people’s privacy. 

The report highlights four basic strategies for improving OSINT processing, including sharing OSINT among agencies and better collaborating on its collection; creating integrated collection management tools; pushing for more innovation to develop better skills and capabilities in handling it; and improving tradecraft for next-generation OSINT through workforce investments.

“By harnessing the potential of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), the Intelligence Community (IC) will continue to provide comprehensive support to national security policymakers and will create additional opportunities to be transparent with our partners and the public about the threats we face.”

Avril D. Haines, Director of National Intelligence. The IC OSINT Strategy 2024-2026

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