#PutinAtWar: The End of Selfie-Soldiers?

Russia’s Ministry of Defense recently drafted a law banning soldiers from posting selfies, so we gathered a few of our favorites

Left: (Source: VKontakte); Center (Source: VKontakte); Right: (Source: VKontakte)

The days of selfie-soldiers might be coming to an end. Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has introduced a new law to ban contract soldiers and military personnel from posting sensitive information on social-media. The Russian MoD is fearful that the military personnel revealed sensitive geolocation data of deployed Russian troops. Specifically, Russian MoD officials cited concerns that terrorist groups or foreign intelligence agencies can use information posted by the soldiers to “destabilize the political and social situations in various regions of the world.”

Their concern is well-founded. Geolocation data is a powerful tool, which can help identify precise locations using details from posted images and geotagged posts. The scope of how often or how effective this information is to potential adversaries is not quantifiable, but geolocation — together with other open source data — is a tool we use at @DFRLab every week.

In the Atlantic Council’s breakthrough report on Russian deployment in the conflict in Ukraine from 2015, “Hiding in Plain Sight”, the authors described using images and social media posts in our research. They wrote:

Using photographs posted on various social media sites, in combination with satellite imagery and “street view” images from services such as Google Earth and Yandex Maps, investigative geolocation techniques pinpoint the coordinates of where photographs were taken. Geolocation is thus a powerful and effective tool for tracking individuals and the images they produce.

This approach helped us to track Russian soldiers in Ukraine, monitor the Zapad 2017 and Slavic Brotherhood 2017 military exercises, and many other different events and claims. In other words, our researchers have made use of the time that many people spend aimlessly scrolling through Instagram!

As the Russian MoD attempts to ban this information, we looked back at some of our favorite selfies.

@DFRLab’s Top 5 Selfies

1. Dabbing in Uniform

This soldier has a great sense of humor and social media savvy. He frequently uses Instagram, Twitter, and ВКонтакте, which is a Russian alternative to Facebook. In this photo, he revealed additional information about military build-up in Luga, before Zapad 2017 began. The background showed a pontoon bridge and a promotional poster, which led us to believe that these exercise were related to Zapad 2017.

(Source: Instagram / kjrlghet)

RATING: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

2. Excited Lukashenko Fan

This soldier posted a series of selfies with his unit returning to Russia after the Zapad 2017 military exercise. In this post, Konstantin shared his excitement of seeing Belarusian President Lukashenko in Minsk. The geotag and post comments revealed his position and fellow soldier in the photo led to additional information in his VK profile.

(Source: Instagram / _holyrainbow_)

RATING: 🔥🔥🔥

3. The Squatting Cossack

This Russian Cossack soldier enjoys sharing selfies. His work behind and in front of the lens shed light on the Tankers Day celebration in Sovietsk. The geotag revealed he was on the Russian-Lithuanian border and hashtags suggested that the event is related to Zapad 2017.

(Source: Instagram / alexandr_hromyh)

RATING: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

4. Chillin’ in the Tank

This soldier, who at the time served with the Kantemirovskaya tank division, posted a gallery of comrades with the caption, “On our way to Belarus.” His photos helped us better analyze equipment on the move ahead of Russia’s largest joint military exercise.

(Source: VK / Pavel Potapov)

RATING: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

5. The Proud Soldier’s Father

One soldier’s VKontakte helped verify whether Russian troops were actually departing Belarus after Zapad 2017 when Russian officials claimed. In this photo, the soldier provided information which confirmed his unit was back home.

(Source: VK / cocdor)

RATING: 🔥🔥

Conclusion

The photos that soldiers post can reveal some or all of the following key geolocation information:

*Geotag: automatically applied GPS position where the photo was taken;
*Text of the post: soldiers frequently mention where they are when posting the photo;
*Comments: soldiers sometime discuss the events regarding the photo with their friends;
*Background: beyond the subject, the photo may show unintentional details of where the photo was taken;
*Contacts: other people tagged in the photos might provide additional information.

This is not the first-time Russian authorities have attempted to regulate selfies. The Ministry of Internal Affairs previously provided a useful guide on how to take a #SafeSelfie (#Безопасноеселфи).

In this case, it is too early to measure whether the MoD’s newly proposed law will have the desired effect among Russian soldiers. Yet the fact remains, when soldiers have camera phones, they are tempted to share their experiences with friends.

The soldier selfie ban is expected to take effect in January 2018, and @DFRLab will monitor its impact.

In the meantime, check out the @ViceNews “Selfie Soldiers” special.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Graham Brookie is the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.