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This week in open-source intelligence (OSINT) news: China OSINT experts highlight difficulties they face when doing open-source investigations; BBC Verify questions the motives behind Houthi attacks in the Red Sea; and the U.S. government takes measures to help counter foreign state information manipulation and promote digital security.
This is the OSINT news of the week: 

OSINT research on China is getting harder but not impossible

China is well known for its efforts to constrain the free flow of information online. Evolving censorship tactics and increasing regulations that reduce online anonymity and limit access to Chinese websites and social media apps are making it progressively difficult for researchers — especially those outside of China — to get the information they need. Yet, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t finding creative ways to work around the restrictions. 
Bellingcat interviewed a dozen China researchers who specialize in tech or human rights about the difficulties they face doing open-source investigations. Researchers explained how it is becoming more and more risky to use burner accounts, access social media apps on personal phones, disclose their research methods, and even communicate with people on the ground, especially in areas like Xinjiang and Tibet where the authorities now detain and imprison people for any connections abroad. 

“Being too transparent about how you’re getting information jeopardizes continued access to that information.”

— Jessica Batke, Senior editor at ChinaFile

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Tracking Houthi attacks in the Red Sea

The Red Sea has become a dangerous place for commercial shipping. In recent weeks, the Houthis, who control a large part of Yemen, have begun targeting commercial vessels with drone and missile attacks. The Houthis proclaim that they focus on ships with “links to Israel” and that their actions are intended to show support for their "Palestinian brothers in Gaza and the West Bank."
OSINT analysts with BBC Verify have mapped many of the attempted strikes and saw that many of the ships targeted, particularly in recent days, have no clear links to Israel at all. While the U.S. and its allies are ramping up their response, commercial shipping line operators are taking measures to reduce the possibility of attacks: some companies are redirecting their ships away from the Red Sea, while others resort to disabling their onboard AIS tracking systems and declaring "no link to Israel" on their location equipment.

“Despite recent U.S. and U.K. airstrikes, the Houthis retain considerable ability to target shipping, but as their missile stockpiles deplete, we may see an uptick in attacks by drones and boats.”

– Dr. Bradley Martin, Former U.S. Navy captain, now at the Rand Corporation

Get OSINT tips for conducting maritime investigations here >

Using OSINT to combat information manipulation

Authoritarian governments use information manipulation to create social discourse, skew national and international debates on critical matters, and undermine democratic institutions. A threat of this magnitude requires an immediate, multi-faceted response, and the U.S. Department of State has recently announced a new framework to help counter foreign state information manipulation. 
The framework is designed as a coordinated approach to create a resilient, fact-based information ecosystem, and OSINT is expected to play an essential role in it. Researchers in independent media, academia and even ordinary citizens can use publicly available information to inform and support government-led initiatives to counter foreign state information manipulation.

“Authoritarian governments use information manipulation to shred the fabric of free and democratic societies.  This transnational threat requires a coordinated international response.”

– The Framework to Counter Foreign State Information Manipulation Fact Sheet

Happy OPSEC Awareness Month! 

Loose lips can sink ships: poor digital operations security — or OPSEC — can reveal sensitive information, alert the adversary to planned military operations or disclose the location of troops during a conflict. OPSEC and OSINT go hand in hand. While OSINT is a discipline intended to collect information from publicly available sources, OPSEC is designed to deny one’s adversaries the ability to collect, analyze and exploit information that might provide them an advantage. 
The OPSEC cycle involves six steps: 

  1. Identifying assets
  2. Analyzing threats
  3. Assessing security vulnerabilities
  4. Measuring risks
  5. Applying countermeasures
  6. Continually improving the effectiveness of your OPSEC policies

January is National OPSEC Awareness Month, a month-long campaign across the U.S. government to help raise threat awareness and encourage organizations outside the government to assess and improve their security postures.

“With adversaries today targeting not only the U.S national security community, but also extracting data and technology from virtually every sector of our economy, OPSEC is a concept all organizations should embrace.”

– Michael C. Casey, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC)

Every other week, we collect OSINT news from around the world. We’re also gathering information on cyberthreats, federal intelligence strategies and much more. Follow us on X (Twitter) and share the OSINT news you’re keeping up with.

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