Twitter’s the Only Tool You Need for Tracking the Military

MotherBoard, By Ben Sullivan, 24 April 2017

There’s a reason FlightRadar24 has 360,000 followers.

Steffan Watkins has spent days meticulously correcting Twitter users on the details of a Russian Air Force training flight in international airspace; a training flight that somewhat alarmed US media outlets.

“They aren’t coming to your home, they’re in international airspace; did nobody tell you they’ve been doing it every month or so for years?” he tweets at one user, who was worried about “those Russian TU-95 bomber planes coming over to my home in Alaska”.

Previously, Watkins could be found live tweeting the position of the Russian Navy ship Yantar for months on end, providing a running Twitter commentary for eager military ship trackers as it made its way through the Mediterranean Sea.

 Watkins, a Canadian IT security consultant with a taste for open source intelligence (OSINT), is just one of hundreds of self-confessed military technology wonks harnessing Twitter’s transparent, open platform to keep tabs on military vehicles and disseminate, educate, and collaborate with like minded individuals. These Twitter power users draw their data from sources like flight tracking service FlightRadar24 and MarineTraffic, FlightRadar24’s marine equivalent—but it’s Twitter that’s the the platform of choice for relaying that information.

Motherboard asked Watkins what makes Twitter so special.

“Twitter is many things to many people, but they are all living under one roof,” Watkins told Motherboard in an email. “It’s a common platform that can be used to get information to people with similar interests who you would never know to connect with on Facebook.”

Facebook’s walled approach to groups is a hangover from the web’s addiction to forums and online clubs that served niche communities. “Take a typical closed forum with moderators, probably password-only access, maybe a system of dues, maybe run by a club. There is no way I would know, as an outsider, if a club/forum existed where they swapped the sort of information I am looking for,” said Watkins.

But Twitter’s open, searchable platform is an antithesis to social media sites like Facebook, especially when pertaining a subject matter so reliant on cold, hard facts such as the altitudes and bearings of military vehicles. As tensions rise between the US and Russia, among other nation states, the popularity of pinning down the locations of military assets—like the Russian naval vessel Viktor Leonov— is growing, and Twitter’s the go-to destination for doing that. There are countless accounts dedicated to all sorts of vehicle and weapons tracking specialities. From this Geneva airport ‘dictator’s aircraft’ tracker to this UK airspace tweetbot, most niches are catered for.

 “Twitter is a great medium to showcase your work in just 140 characters,” Twitter user @rajfortyseven told Motherboard via Twitter DM. This account’s speciality is missile tracking from satellite imagery. In January, @rajfortyseven used Twitter to publicize their own claims that Pakistan’s Babur 3 missile launch was a fake.

Whether or not @rajfortyseven’s claims were founded is another matter, but the account is one of many becoming a popular source of information for weapons wonks and OSINT fans—after all, the majority of these accounts deal in verifiable information directly from professional tracking services or coordinates from real satellite images. “Attached pics/images provide better understanding of the issue,” the user behind the account explained to Motherboard, pointing out the benefits of relaying information via tweets.

Babar-3 missile: Pakistan’s Babur-3 cruise missile launch fake, say experts

“I also use twitter to inform people about geo-locations of Chinese missiles from routinely posted pics,” Motherboard was told. “I do it because it is my hobby to read satellite imagery. Keeps my mind working. Keeps me busy. I enjoy it.”

In February Motherboard reported on a crashed drone in Yemen that was allegedly carrying NSA spy equipment. Information included in that story was sourced from Twitter, found by searching for related terms and finding other Twitter users who were talking about the incident.

“With a keyword or two, using Twitter, you can quickly find succinct information that someone else may have already been posting about,” explained Watkins. His particular speciality is tracking marine vessels, a hobby he’s dedicated an entire blog too, but Watkins’s updates on the routine movements of vessels such as the Viktor Leonov are just as at home on Twitter as they are on his own website.

Watkins told Motherboard that information from other sources like the VK forums, which provide up to date discussion about Russian military movements, and ADSBExchange, which offers unfiltered and uncensored ADS-B plane tracking information, are also flipped onto Twitter.

In a social media bubble so dominated by fake news, information wars, and polarised opinions, Twitter provides a surprisingly conducive and welcome platform for the binary data of tracking your favourite plane.

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